Repertoire includes Boléro (two recordings), La valse, Daphnis et Chloé (Suites 1 & 2), the two piano concertos, and Ravels orchestration of Mussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition
Artists include pianists Marguerite Long and Alfred Cortot, conductors Pierre Monteux, Walther Straram, Piero Coppola, Albert Wolff, Pedro de Freitas-Branco, Serge Koussevitzky and Ravel himself with orchestras from Paris, San Francisco and Boston
Recordings made between 1930-49
Reviewed by: Bill Newman
Reviewed: February 2003
CD No: ANDANTE 1978
The most fashionable way of appreciating the correct way of performing Ravel’s music – if we agree with the considerable ’spread’ of current transfers – corresponds to André Cluytens and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Mother Goose (suite, recorded 1949) has never sounded more pungent or more sonorous with a dry, forward acoustic for French woodwind and the conductor’s persuasive phrasing. But why boost the bass response and spoil the subtlety?
The G major piano concerto has to be included, but I wonder if the choice of recording is right with the veteran Marguerite Long as soloist and the Orchestre Symphonique Paris under Freitas-Branco. Stylistically, there is nothing to complain about but Long made an earlier recording, even worse sounding than this, under the composer’s baton. There is a problem here with her attempts to play the music up to speed, then falling down by a failing technique. Freitas-Branco, an admired musician shows little attempt to stay with her; indeed I believe him to be frightened out of his wits. The formidable Long was something a martinet, preaching how well she knew both Ravel and Debussy and laying down the law about how their music should be interpreted. Freitas-Branco is far more relaxed and idiomatic in Pavane pour une infante défunte, also recorded in 1932.
Pierre Monteux, surely from his experiences in the concert hall, would have been preferable. His San Francisco Symphony recordings, rare of their kind, are highly desirable, but Andante has boosted Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.1, recorded 1946, mercilessly to give too much prominence to low bass sonorities. More care with the transfer should have been taken. The performance is impeccable.
I like Philippe Gaubert’s performance of Daphnis et ChloéSuite No.2 with the Walter Straram Concert Orchestra, and its emphasis on French tonal nuances. In the 1930s, attempts to render Ravel music in an unhurried manner (in accordance with the composer’s wishes) brought out the Gallic temperament more convincingly, revealing much inner detail absent from more brilliantly colourful recordings with American orchestras. Alborada del gracioso, under Straram’s own direction, is a further case in point. The perfectly clear recording, lacking some ambience, is quite acceptable.
I have never been entirely happy with Boléro as conducted by Ravel himself. The 1930 Polydor recording had no give at all, with a limited dynamic range, and the Lamoureux Orchestra is not what it became subsequently under Igor Markevitch. Some of the playing is frightful.
The ’Master Conductor’ for French music – Debussy as well as Ravel – was Piero Coppola. Fully conversant with a large range of Romantic and Modern music, here was a musician who revealed inner colourings neglected by contemporaries. Le tombeau de Couperin (1930) with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra is a miracle of pacing, counterpoint and stylistic grace. Valses nobles et sentimentales (1934), in turn brings out wit and elegance to perfection, and is beautifully proportioned. Why a second Bolero? The one under Coppola (1930), with Grand Orchestre Symphonique, is just a minute quicker than Ravel’s own version. The dry recording aside, Coppola doubles the tempo for the closing three minutes. Nobody bothered to inform him that sides 1-3 from the original 78s were at a slower tempo!
Ravel’s other piano concerto – for the left hand – poses similar problems to its interpreters as the G major. No mention is made in the liner notes about Alfred Cortot having the effrontery to play it with both hands. If this is indeed the case, he makes a mess of it, compounded by the egalitarian Charles Munch directing the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in so clumsy and sloppy a fashion as to become an embarrassment. Despite the comment concerning stylistic rightness in the liner note, I still find nothing to enjoy in this version of a truly wonderful work. Ravel enthusiasts know all too well that Paul Wittgenstein (the work’s commissioner) was even more disastrous in his live and recorded performances, so the problem of choice is further compounded.
I am delighted that Monteux’s La Valse (1941) with the San Francisco Symphony has been included. This is one of my very favourite performances (ranking with Paul Paray on Mercury), without those unnecessary accelerations in the coda that make a mockery of the composer’s intentions.
Albert Wolff, with an improved Lamoureux Orchestra (1930), also makes a fine impression in Menuet antique. Unfortunately this highly gifted conductor is all too often ignored.
Monteux’s San Francisco Sarabande, 1946, Ravel’s arrangement of the movement from Debussy’s Pour le piano) is commendable for it tasteful balance. But at this point, Andante provide us with a vivid contrast in the shape of Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony (1930) in the same piece. Totally different in concept, as one would expect from this self-willed, somewhat eccentric Russian genius, the performance demonstrates the maestro’s ability to ’govern’ the rubato phrasing of various French section principals who eventually became as ’topical’ as their Director!
Ravel’s orchestration of Debussy’s Danse is given similar Koussevitzky treatment and his performance of Rapsodie espagnole (1945) displays everything in evocative colours. One can certainly appreciate trumpet-player Roger Voisin and the forceful dynamics he employed.
While welcoming Koussevitzky’s 1930 recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, Andante might have attempted to persuade EMI France to loan out Paul Kletzki’s epic account with the French National Orchestra. Famous in its day, it has been unfortunately forgotten.