Ravel
Miroirs – Alborada del gracioso
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Rapsodie espagnole
Pièce en forme de habanera
Shéhérazade – Ouverture de féerie
Menuet antique
Boléro
Jennifer Gilbert (violin)

Orchestre National de Lyon
Leonard Slatkin

Recorded 2 & 3 September 2011 in Auditorium de Lyon, Lyon, France
CD No: NAXOS 8.572887
Duration: 68 minutes
Reviewed: December 2012
This is the beginning of a very complete Ravel cycle. “Orchestral Works” doesn’t quite do this project justice for it will embrace not only literally everything that Ravel composed that requires an orchestra – of which he was an absolute master – including the operas and the piano concertos, but also his orchestrations of others’ music (such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and pieces by Chabrier, Debussy, Schumann, et al) and works that he didn’t contemplate for such treatment, for example Marius Constant’s marvellous transcription of Gaspard de la nuit. In addition, Ravel's early works for chorus and orchestra, some not previously recorded, will be issued.
This first volume is a nice mix of music and suggests that this is a series that should be followed with intent – both for the forthcoming rarities and for insightful and individual readings of the works of genius. The disc opens with Alborada del gracioso, the fourth piece of Ravel’s piano cycle Miroirs and brilliantly orchestrated by the composer, both in itself and in its suggestiveness. This performance is notable for its lucidity and fantasy; details are considered afresh, often subtly shaded, and reach the ear newly-minted. What is also apparent is that the Lyon Orchestra has really taken to its new maestro, for these musicians and Leonard Slatkin have created not only a painter’s palette of sounds but express them with a gentle touch and transparent sonorities, tangibly recorded. Which is not to say that this Alborada lacks exuberance – it doesn’t – for its consideration and spontaneity add up to a winning reading capped by a scintillating coda, now much-played by your reviewer who has revelled in the vivid detailing and appreciated the excellent solo contributions, not least from harp, flute, bassoon and trumpets – the latter’s tricky-to-play figuration is crisply articulated.
Next is a very sensitive and moving Pavane pour une infante défunte – heartbreaking in the closing section, in fact, given with a Giulini-like tenderness. The delicacy of the reading is in itself rather special, spiritual even, the Lyon musicians captivating the ears and touching the soul. Slatkin gets the pacing spot-on in music all-too-easy to indulge and sentimentalise – reminding of Ravel’s rebuke that “it was the child who died, not the Pavane” – with neither charge being levelled at this conductor. The Pavane’s quiet ending leads nicely into the ‘coming from nowhere’ nocturnal ‘Prélude’ that opens Rapsodie espagnole, atmospheric and shadowy, beginning a rendition as much concerned with the understated aspects of music-making (so integral to Ravel) as the rowdier ones. In the piece that is a habanera (originally Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera), Jennifer Gilbert (leader of Orchestre National de Lyon and the sister of conductor Alan Gilbert) gives a sultry and seductive account of the violin part in music conceived for voice and piano and played here in an arrangement presumably made by the composer; Naxos’s presentation doesn’t say specifically.
The ‘fairy overture’ Shéhérazade is an early work, from 1898 (and no relation to the later song-cycle), which could in some passages be credited to Debussy. It sprawls a bit and can be bombastic, but it also contains some memorably wondrous and stirring ideas and is vibrantly and intensely brought off here. Menuet antique is a deliciously tart creation, yet with a harmonic heart that leaves in no doubt Ravel’s depth of expression; and the middle section is hauntingly poignant. Slatkin and his musicians address the music’s dancing vigour with aplomb and elegance, and its inner sanctum trio with much feeling as well as clarity. Finally, Boléro, a much-abused piece, here rehabilitated to Ravel’s intentions; and, if I am not mistaken, given as a single unedited take, ideal for this “orchestration without music”, as its composer termed it, a crescendo that is here remorselessly built and implacably trod to final liberty with excellent solos of the repeated slinky melody along the way, not least from saxophone and trombone, which like the other individual contributions sound French, and (sadly) one doesn’t get to say that too often in these orchestrally homogenised times.
Joining the hallowed Ravel recordings by past masters such as Ansermet and Munch, then Boulez (his New York versions) and Haitink (those from Boston), this is an excellent start to what promises to be a mouth-watering anthology from a native orchestra and a cosmopolitan conductor. Volume deux is keenly anticipated.

 

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