Notes and Editorial Reviews
MAURICE RAVEL CONDUCTS BOLÉRO, AND OTHER FRENCH COMPOSERS CONDUCT
Maurice Ravel, cond; Lamoureux O;
Florent Schmitt, cond; Walther Straram O;
Henri Tomasi, cond; Grand SO, Cho;
Phillippe Gaubert, cond; Paris SO
DUTTON CDBP 9789, mono (75:48)
La Tragédie de Salomé.
Les Chants de la mer
This enterprising collection (the clunky title sums it up pretty well) couples one very famous recording with three pieces of real esoterica. The recordings all date from 1930 with the exception of the Tomasi, made in 1935.
Although Ravel was famously a conductor of limited ability (the end is a mess!), his own recording of
has a spontaneity, sense of occasion, and general “rightness” of sound that make it truly cherishable. The French wind and string sound at this time was uniquely characterful, solos wonderfully pungent, tuttis tangy and unblended. Against his strict metrical backdrop, Ravel has his players “swing” the tune against the beat—very effectively, though in much the same way every time. Regarding the question of tempo, he famously took Toscanini to task for going too fast, but his own performance, at about quarter = 66, is comfortably below his metronome mark of 72. Dutton’s transfer is pitched noticeably sharp, clocking in at 15:41 against 16:24 for the correctly pitched Andante transfer, which also has a much more natural, open sound (the Dutton suffers from excessive filtering).
Ravel’s recording soon had plenty of competition, with three more versions appearing in the same year: Piero Coppola’s (EMI or Andante) was recorded within days of the composer’s own, and under his supervision. Although his basic tempo is close to Ravel’s, he indulges in some surprising deviations, sometimes holding back for emphasis, at others impulsively speeding up. His superior conducting skills are evident in his soloists’ greater variety of phrasing and a more artful long-range building of excitement. Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw recording (Pearl or Opus Kura) has a very different character, not only considerably faster (though his 14:25 is still a hair below the score’s specified tempo) but much tauter, solos less improvisatory. Koussevitsky’s Boston version (RCA) is much faster still (13:23), and very straight and streamlined. I don’t imagine Ravel liked it much! Incidentally, Jos van Immerseel’s recent “period instrument” version (Anima Eterna Orchestra/Zig-Zag) is one of the slowest ever at 16:53 (probably wisely, he doesn’t try to replicate Ravel’s or Coppola’s idiomatic license in phrasing, but the result is—inevitably—comparatively bland).
Schmitt’s sultrily evocative sound world (1907) liberally mixes Debussy, Dukas, and early Stravinsky, though without the individuality of any of them. Although he does tend to overwork some pretty thin material, his sense of orchestral color is unerring, and effectively served in this well-conducted, exciting performance. The recording is good for its time, though again I find the over-filtered transfer a drawback (I have not heard the rival one on EMI). Of course music like this gains a lot from stereo, and as a listening experience there’s not much contest with the classic Paray/Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Mercury, 1958).
(1931) is an enjoyably preposterous concoction for wordless male chorus, solo soprano (unidentified), and orchestra, on an exotic (French colonial African) subject. The booklet notes aptly characterize the result as “film music manqué,” though that doesn’t quite do justice to this wildly eclectic brew of Koechlin, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky (
), and even hints of Messiaen-lite. The performance is excellent, and the recording impressively wide-ranging.
Flutist-conductor-composer Gaubert’s three-movement seascape (1927) might be expected to owe something to Debussy. Even so, I’m surprised he had the nerve to begin with such a blatant crib of the opening bars from “De l’aube à midi sur la mer”!
aside, Gaubert’s nautical evocations, though fairly conventional, are attractive—especially the third movement, an atmospheric nocturne. The score’s predominance of quieter dynamics is at a disadvantage from the “underwater” sound of Dutton’s heavy filtering (and no, that’s not a compliment in this context!).
If the Ravel is your main interest, the Andante set (a four-disc treasure trove of historic Ravel recordings) is much to be preferred on sonic grounds; otherwise, recommended to the adventurous.
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
Works on This Recording
Boléro by Maurice Ravel
Lamoureux Concerts Association Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1928; France
Tam-Tam by Henri Tomasi
Period: 20th Century
Les chants de la mer by Philippe Gaubert
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1929; France
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