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Maurice Ravel 
Daphnis and Chloe (Complete Ballet in Three Parts)


Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio Franc;, Danbiel Bargier, chorus master
CD Number: DG B0005075-02

Micheal Gielen conducting the Chorus of the EuropaChorAkademie and the SWR Orchestra; Joshard Daus chorus master.
CD Number: Arte Nova ANO 636410


Laurent Petitgirard conducting the Chorus of the Bordeaux Opera and the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine.
CD Number: Naxos 8.570075
Review By Max Westler
Click here to e-mail reviewer

  The two performances of this music that Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded for RCA in 1955 and 1962 have so completely dominated the competition that it's easy to forget how many other distinguished performances were recorded during that same period and how few have been recorded since. Though Munch early and late both deserve their reputation, it would take a less sybaritic disposition than my own to have resisted the diverse pleasures of Pierre Monteux, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Cluytens, Ernest Ansermet, and (a little later) Jean Martinon.

Since that "golden age," it's been pretty much a drought, and those in search of a modern recording of the score have been forced to choose between performances that are well wrought, but unfeeling (Haitink, Abbado) and those that are altogether clueless (Levine, Rattle). At the time, Charles Dutoit's Montreal recording was much praised, but it seems clear now that that was mostly because of its sound--it was one of the first digital releases one could listen to without cringing. The performance is, like so much of Dutoit's work, suave, sophisticated, and entirely unmagical. Of the two Boulez recordings, I prefer his first, mostly for the athletic playing of the New York Philharmonic. The remake with the Berlin Philharmonic might indeed be an improvement, but it's so brightly recorded that it's hard to listen without squinting. In this score, as in so many others, Boulez is perfect at rendering pitch, timbre, and intonation; at the same time, his literal mindedness pretty much bleaches out any trace of spontaneity or genuine feeling.

So it counts as something of a renaissance, a blessing, when three new recordings all appear at once; each condcted by an artist who clearly loves the ballet and has something important to say about it.

Myung-Whun Chung is a consistently undervalued conductor who has successfully recorded the music of composers as fundamentally different as Dvorak and Shostakovitch, Nielsen and Messiaen. He is no less impressive here. Certainly few conductors have paid such close attention to the narrative of the ballet, or been so alert to its shifting mood swings. The accompanying booklet makes it easy to follow the scenario (each scene is given its own cue), which in turn makes it easy to appreciate how intensely Chung is characterizing the action. He does so without ever losing sight of the score's overall sweep and momentum. Listened to on its own, the third part of the ballet, commonly excerpted as the "Suite Number Two," sounds a little too fast at Chung's excited tempos. But set back in the context of the whole ballet, those same closing pages sound perfectly right--the ecstatic conclusion to the story Chung has been telling from the opening bars. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France may not be a world-class ensemble, but for their new music director they play with authority, a tight ensemble, and an appropriately French palette of colors. The recording is just as commanding as the interpretation. The intimacy, sensuality, and power of the music are all well served. In brief, this is the best recording of the music we've had in at least thirty years.

Though not quite in the same class, the Gielen and Petitgirard recordings are both fascinating, all the more so because they approach the score from completely different points of view. Gielen is "objective," brightly colored, and genial, capturing both the bumptious humor of the music and the languor of its more relaxed moments. Intensely ardent and Romantic, Petitgirard emphasizes the sexual longing of the main characters--desire awakened, frustrated, and then fulfilled. To do this, he relies on slower tempos and draws out the darker shades of Ravel's orchestration. The recordings are as different as the interpretations: for Gielen, we are given an upper balcony seat; for Petitgirard, we seem to be sitting in the first row. (In either case, you can easily change seats by adjusting the volume.)

If I had to choose between these two performances, I'd go with Gielen. The SWR is clearly a better orchestra than the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine, and especially in the big climaxes one senses the Bordeaux musicians struggling to give Petitgirard everything he's asking for. Still, the soloists are mostly superb, and though the SWR does indeed play better, its sound is neutral: less "French," than generically European. I should mention that I was at first surprised to find a performance of Daphnis by Micheal Gielen, a conductor long associated with the music of Mahler, the second Viennese school, and the more experimental and demanding modernists. Then I reminded myself how easily conductors can find themselves type-cast by their recording companies. Only the most celebrated artists (Bernstein, Karajan, Solti, etc.) get the chance to record their entire repertory. But given the freshness of Gielen's response here, I certainly wouldn't mind hearing more Ravel (or Debussy) from him and the SWR.

To summarize: if you don't know this music at all, you urgently need to get in touch with one or more of those "golden age" performances I mentioned earlier. Most of these are currently available as mid-line CD reissues, remarkable values given that all of them still sound terrific. If, however, you desire a modern recording of the work, you need look no further than the Chung. And if, like me, you adore the music and are eager to hear alternative takes on it, I'd also recommend Gielen and Petitgard, both of which can be had for the change in your pocket.        

 

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