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Debussy: Images, Etc; Ravel / Simon Rattle, Et Al


Release Date: 04/01/2008 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 14565   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Claude DebussyMaurice Ravel
Performer:  Maria EwingCécile OussetAndrei Gavrilov
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraBerlin Philharmonic OrchestraCity of Birmingham Symphony Chorus,   ... 
Number of Discs: 5 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 6 Hours 0 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



DEBUSSY Le roi Lear (fin. & orch. Roger-Ducasse): Fanfare d’ouverture; La rêve. Jeux. Images for Orchestra. Estampes: Pagodes (orch. Grainger). Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. 1 La mer. 1 La boîte à joujoux (orch. Caplet). 1 Read more Préludes (orch. Matthews): Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest; Feuilles mortes; Feux d’artifice. 1 RAVEL L’eventail de Jeanne: Fanfare. Shéhérezade. 4 Miroirs: Alborado del gracioso; La vallée des cloches (orch. Grainger). Ma mère l’oye. La valse. Daphnis et Chloé. Boléro. Concerto for Piano Left Hand (2 versions). 2,5,3 Piano Concerto in G. 3 Ma mère l’oye: Le jardin féerique 1 Simon Rattle, cond; Maria Ewing (sop); 4 Andrei Gavrilov (pn); 5 Cécile Ousset (pn); 3 City of Birmingham SO; Berlin PO; 1 London SO 2 EMI 14565 (5 CDs: 360:01)


Since I first heard Simon Rattle on his old LP recording of Britten’s War Requiem some 30-odd years ago, I’ve alternately enjoyed and been somewhat disappointed with his work on recordings. He always tries to present a personal view, so of course I respect that, but in about half of his performances I’ve heard, particularly Mahler, I personally felt that the specific way he conducts them is a little too clinical and emotionally removed.


This set is a good case in point. Recorded over a span of 27 years—the earlier version of the Ravel Concerto for Left Hand dates from July 1977 with the LSO, near the beginning of his career, while the second disc of Debussy works with the Berlin Philharmonic comes from September 2004—it gives us a fairly accurate trajectory of his artistic progress over the years, specifically as it relates to these two composers of the French Impressionist school.


I dislike making categorical statements on any artist’s development, if for no other reason than that the recorded evidence captures but a moment in time, and may or may not signify that artist’s evolving view of any given work. This is particularly true of artists with an inquisitive mind and restless artistic nature, and whatever my occasional reservations about Rattle’s music-making, I give him that. For better or worse, he is an artist, not merely a performer. He does not “act” at being a conductor, but is a serious student of every piece he conducts. Even the missteps among his recorded legacy say as much.


Whatever his emotional distance from the music of Mahler, Rattle is by and large very successful in Debussy and Ravel. These are thoughtful, yet interesting performances. No detail is too small or insignificant for him to attend to. No passage is given in a perfunctory manner. He works at what he does—works very hard, in fact—and therefore I feel a bit churlish about making any criticism at all, but unfortunately we must judge his results by those of the great Debussy and Ravel conductors of the past, and present.


I claim no previous familiarity with the minor works and transcriptions by other hands on these discs, and thus can only say that, to me, his performances of Debussy’s two brief “King Lear” pieces (orchestrated by Roger-Ducasse), “Pagodes” (orchestrated by Percy Grainger), La boîte à joujoux (orchestrated by Caplet), and the three piano preludes (orchestrated by Mathews) all struck me as fine performances, as did Ravel’s “Valley of the bells” also orchestrated by Grainger. Perhaps collectors of these small pieces know of simply fabulous knockout versions that put Rattle’s in the shade, but judging by the overall high quality of the other performances I doubt that they are that much better.


As a disc, and a set of performances, I must say that the Debussy album with the Berlin Philharmonic left me completely cold. Whether this was Rattle’s fault or a lack of understanding on the part of the Berlin musicians, I cannot judge. Certainly, there is just as much transparency, clarity of inner voices, sensible pacing, and well-judged gradations of dynamics here as in all the other performances on this set, yet the performances do not click. At first, I thought it was just because the opening piece, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune , was purposefully underplayed a bit too much, but as I began to traverse through La mer, I realized that something was wrong. There is an emotional disconnect between conductor and material here or, to be more accurate, between orchestra and material. Let us be merciful and draw the curtain on this disc, for it is the exception rather than the rule in these performances.


For 30 years, my golden standard in the major orchestral works of Debussy has been the recordings made in the 1970s by Bernard Haitink. Ever since his performances were issued on LP, they have never left my collection. La mer, Images, Jeux, Prélude, and the Nocturnes are all impressed on my mind like a golden matrix. Obviously, since I found Rattle’s Berlin disc to be a major disappointment, I still consider Haitink’s Prélude and La mer unsurpassable (though Toscanini’s La mer would be in the same category were it in stereo), but much to my surprise, Rattle far exceeds Haitink’s readings of Images and Jeux. It is a difference of nuance, of phrasing, of detail. Haitink is taut, dramatic, exciting. Rattle is no less exciting in climaxes, but in quieter passages he is more discursive, more whimsical, less rigid rhythmically. They dance and dodge among the various colors of the score; they emerge to glitter in shafts of sunlight, then retreat to half-lights and shadows. I cannot praise them highly enough.


Moving from Debussy to Ravel, whose music encompasses three of the five CDs here, one finds much of the same. Again, the short “Fanfare” and “Vallée des cloches” were new to me, but I enjoyed them for what they were. It is in the major works that one discovers the essence of Rattle’s approach to this composer.


Perhaps the most telling and instructive lesson is found in his two performances of the Concerto for Piano Left Hand, with Andrei Gavrilov and the LSO in 1977, then with Cécile Ousset and his own City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1990. Both performances are well detailed, but the 1977 is decidedly more dramatic, less bathed in half-lights. The second de-emphasizes drama somewhat in favor of color and shade. This is not to say that the first performance lacks color while the second lacks drama, for this is not so; but there is certainly a difference of approach. In this particular concerto, I prefer the former. We only have one recording here of the Concerto in G, and it is given in a similar vein to the 1990 recording of the D major concerto.


In the other recordings, I get the strong impression that Rattle is aware, to one extent or another, of the approach to this composer taken by Ernest Ansermet. This is especially evident in his highly individual interpretation of La valse, which almost conspicuously avoids an obvious or strongly accented Viennese waltz rhythm, almost as if the later disintegration of the tempo and melody are already suggested by its opening measures. Here, dramatic accents are strong and almost unexpectedly violent, a strong contrast to the soothing waltz melody. In the end, I found myself preferring Charles Dutoit’s recording/performance of this piece, but only because I agree with Dutoit, and not with Rattle, that the opening pages of the waltz must sound as conventional and un-suggestive of its unraveling as possible.


Rattle’s performance of Ma mère l’oye is as good as I think we can expect in the modern era, fully entering into the wit and whimsy of the piece, though Seiji Ozawa (Deutsche Grammophon) and Ansermet (Decca) are also exemplary. Shéhérazade and “Alborada del gracioso” also benefit from his playing of light and shade, and soprano Maria Ewing, often uneven and unpredictable in her recorded performances, sings splendidly here. One can almost smell the incense of Shéhérazade’s boudoir in this performance. The only version that comes close is the old mono recording by Suzanne Danco, also with Ansermet, but sadly in mono sound from 1954 (Decca), though Jessye Norman is rapturous in her own way with Colin Davis (Philips).


Rattle’s interpretation of the complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet is also excellent, to my ears more cohesive and convincing than even the recordings of Pierre Monteux (who conducted the premiere, but 40 years before he recorded it) or Dutoit. Warmth and evocative colors are what are most needed in this piece, and Rattle provides these in abundance, though he, like most other conductors, takes the final scene (which later became the Suite No. 2) much too slowly and not with enough dynamic contrast. The opening up of the orchestra here should sound like a sunrise. In this one section, Dutoit gets both the tempo and the “sunrise” effect exactly right; Rattle, like most other conductors, does not. I was intrigued, and fascinated, by the fact that I also received a performance of this ballet conducted by Michael Gielen for review. As you will see in my review of that disc, Gielen actually sublimates more detail than he reveals, but the recorded sound is so much more spectacular than Rattle’s that it transports one more readily to another world.


Ah, but I’m saving the best for last. For nearly a century, no conductor has managed to play Boléro the way Ravel conceived it, which of course is not exactly, 100% the way it appears in print. Despite the fact that the composer himself recorded it in 1930, and that his recording has been oft reissued and is world-famous, others’ performances completely miss the subtleties of Ravel’s own performance. To try to describe these in words, they include an irregular swagger of tempo created by a strong rhythmic accent on the first beat of each bar, on which rubato is used to “steal” a fraction of a second from the next beat in each bar. Ravel accomplishes this, and Rattle, but no one else. The alto saxophone was meant to simulate the playing of the legendary C-melody saxophone jazz-player Frankie Trumbauer, who Ravel had heard and admired on his first trip to America, while the trombone smears are most decidedly those of a jazz-player. (In Toscanini’s ill-fated New York Philharmonic premiere of the work, which was conducted much too fast for Ravel’s taste, the only thing the composer liked about the performance was the perfectly-played trombone smears of jazzman Miff Mole, specially hired for the occasion.) As the music increases in volume, Ravel has the strings play divided and with a slight edgy tone quality, a distinctly French sound of the period. Rattle, again, duplicates this. And at the very end, only Ravel and Rattle have the entire trombone section smear around in an almost reckless fashion. This is the way Boléro should sound. No other LP or CD version comes close.


If you can overlook the problems in CD 2, then, this is a great set. Yes, there are a few performances of a few works by others that I personally prefer—and you may, too—but you won’t be disappointed. The sound quality, apparently engineered to Rattle’s specifications, emphasizes a clean acoustic with much attention to detail.


FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

1. Jeux by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; France 
Length: 19 Minutes 36 Secs. 
2. Estampes (3) for Piano: no 1, Pagodes by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903; France 
Length: 6 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Percy Aldridge Grainger. 
3. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1892-1894; France 
Length: 10 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: France (1892 - 1894). 
4. Préludes, Book 1: no 7, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1910; France 
Length: 3 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Colin Matthews. 
5. Préludes, Book 2: no 2, Feuilles mortes by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; France 
Length: 3 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Colin Matthews. 
6. Préludes, Book 2: no 12, Feux d'artifice by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1913; France 
Length: 5 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Colin Matthews. 
7. L'éventail de Jeanne: Fanfare by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; France 
Length: 2 Minutes 20 Secs. 
8. Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Maria Ewing (Soprano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903; France 
Length: 17 Minutes 43 Secs. 
9. Miroirs: Alborada del gracioso by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904-1905; France 
Length: 7 Minutes 43 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Maurice Ravel. 
10. Miroirs: La vallée des cloches by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904-1905; France 
Length: 5 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Percy Aldridge Grainger. 
11. Ma mère l'oye by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: France 
Length: 33 Minutes 6 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: France (1908 - 1910). 
12. La valse by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; France 
Length: 12 Minutes 33 Secs. 
13. Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,  City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1909-1912; France 
Length: 55 Minutes 7 Secs. 
14. Boléro by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,  City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928; France 
Length: 16 Minutes 15 Secs. 
15. Concerto for Piano in G major by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Cécile Ousset (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1931; France 
Length: 22 Minutes 13 Secs. 
16. Le roi Lear: Fanfare by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904; France 
Length: 1 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Jean Roger-Ducasse. 
17. Le roi Lear: Le Sommeil de Lear by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1904; France 
Length: 3 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Jean Roger-Ducasse. 
18. Images for Orchestra by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905-1912; France 
Length: 37 Minutes 29 Secs. 
19. La mer by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903-1905; France 
Length: 24 Minutes 37 Secs. 
20. La boîte à joujoux by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Length: 31 Minutes 45 Secs. 
21. Concerto for Piano left hand in D major by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Andrei Gavrilov (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1930; France 
Length: 36 Minutes 23 Secs. 
22. La boîte à joujoux: Prélude, Le sommeil de la boîte by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Length: 2 Minutes 17 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: André Caplet. 

Sound Samples

Le Roi Lear - Incidental Music (completed and orch. Roger-Ducasse): I. Fanfare d'ouverture
Le Roi Lear - Incidental Music (completed and orch. Roger-Ducasse): II. Le Sommeil de Lear
Jeux - Poème dansé
Images: I. Gigues
Images, II. Ibéria: 1. Par les rues et par les chemins
Images, II. Ibéria: 2. Les parfums de la nuit -
Images, II. Ibéria: 3. Le matin d'un jour de fête
Images: III. Rondes de printemps
Pagodes from Estampes
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
La Mer: De l'aube à midi sur la mer
La Mer: Jeux de vagues
La Mer: Dialogue du vent et de la mer
La Boîte à Joujoux: Prélude
La Boîte à Joujoux: 1er Tableau
La Boîte à Joujoux: 2e Tableau
La Boîte à Joujoux: 3e Tableau
La Boîte à Joujoux: Changement a vue...4e Tableau
Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest
Feuilles mortes
Feux d'artifice

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