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Maurice Ravel
Daphnis and Chloe (Complete Ballet); Bolero; Pavane for a Dead Princess
Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

Claude Debussy
La Mer; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Jeux
Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Review By Max Westler


  Throughout much of his career, Valery Gergiev has been loyal to his homeland, a distinctly and self-consciously Russian conductor. He has served as music director of the Mravinsky Orchestra for the past twenty-five years; and during that time, he has mostly confined himself to recording (and sometimes rerecording) Russian repertory. What else can one say about a conductor who followed up his recording of the complete Prokofiev symphonies by embarking on a cycle of the complete Shostakovitch symphonies? Between those two ambitious projects, Gergiev revisited both Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, this time recording the entire ballet, and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. He also seems to have become the go-to accompanist for any young firebrand's recording of Rachmaninoff piano concertos, a role he has most recently played for Lang Lang and Denis Matsuev. Whereas many conductors like to begin their careers specializing in the music of their native countries, then branch out into more basic repertory, Gergiev has thus remained defiantly true to his origins. After all this time, we're still awaiting his first recording of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony.

Now, with his appointment as music director of the London Symphony.

Orchestra, Gergiev finally seems to be expanding his horizons. These two discs represent his first incursion into French repertory, and I have to admit that even though I admire many of his performances of Russian music, I didn't quite know what to expect here. In fact I can only think of two Russian conductors who chose to specialize in French music: Serge Koussevitsky and Evgeni Svetlanov. After having fled the Bolsheviks, Koussevitsy established a home base in Paris on his way to becoming music director in Boston, and he knew Ravel and Debussy personally. His performances of their music still sound deeply affecting and authoritative today, even given the limitations of the recordings (which were mostly made on 78s). Svetlanov is another story altogether. A dependable, sometimes commendable interpreter of Russian music, his performances of French repertory are entirely surreal: Debussy filtered through Tchaikovsky and Moussorsky. No one who heard his infamous La Mer back in the day was left unscarred. I still wake up screaming.

I'm happy to report that Gergiev's approach to these familiar scores is at least idiomatic. He avoids the brusque gestures, thick textures, and somber colors that characterized Svetlanov's performances. On the Ravel disc, which is I think the more successful of the two, Gergiev lets the music breathe: there's a lightness and transparency to the sound he conjures up, and plenty of color and atmosphere. Gergiev has always been a very individual, charismatic leader; his performances often sound like no one else's. This can sometimes be a very good thing (as witness his altogether remarkable recordings of Scheherazade and The Rite of Spring), and sometimes not (his recent mauling of the Rachmaninoff Second). In the present instances, his individualism produces mixed results: the Daphnis and Chloe works out very well, not so much his La Mer.

In Ravel's huge "choreographic poem," Gergiev pays close attention to the narrative: his interpretive touches add an appropriate sense of playful humor and eroticism to the individual episodes. He can whip a lot of excitement in the more exuberant music, but he is equally attentive to the more inward, indolent scenes, "the murmur of brooklets formed by dew," the sensuous interplay of the lovers. My only complaint here is the concluding "danse generale" where I miss the lift, exhilaration, and muscular release that other conductors, not all of them French, have brought to this music. In the end this performance can be enthusiastically recommended to fans of the conductor, but those looking for a stand-alone version of the work should opt for the recent recording (also an SACD) by James Levine and the Boston Symphony. Levine gives the score a shimmering sense of magic and youthful athleticism that's missing here. After having heard the Pavane one too many times over the course of my listening career, I regret to say, that most performances now sound the same to me, as does this one. Sorry, but there it is. If I heard the piece played by orchestra of kazoos, it would probably sound the same. In the Bolero, Gergiev's point making is self-defeating: he slows the music down in order to better characterize each repetition of Ravel's banal theme. The result is a Bolero that drags, and that's the one thing a Bolero must never do.

Choppy waters characterize Gergiev's La Mer: the music doesn't flow. Here again he tries to do too much, is continually slowing down, and then speeding up again. These self-conscious tempo adjustments give the music a nervous edge that feels entirely wrong. In the end, Gergiev's strong-arm approach makes this ingenuously cohesive score sound episodic. But I will say one thing: he is never boring. This performance has many surprising turns; and though I often found myself asking, "Now why did he do that," I never lost interest, was always wondering what he was going to do next. And the climactic storm he conjures up in the last movement is as apocalyptic and terrifying as any I've heard.

The Prelude is atmospheric, gorgeously shaped and played, but doesn't quite build to as stirring a climax as more classic versions by Munch, MTT, and Bernstein, to name but a few. Jeux, however, is a complete success. This wonderful score has never achieved the popularity it deserves because conductors tend to underplay it. For me it was Leonard Bernstein who first proved that this ballet (whose playful subject is sexual flirtation) should be presented boldly, assertively. Here Gergiev's robust approach pays big dividends; this is the best Jeux I've ever heard, and I don't think it's a coincidence that, at 18 minutes, it is also the fastest.

On both these discs, the London Symphony performs magnificently: their long experience in this repertory shows at every turn. Though some recent LSO "Live" releases have had sub-par sound (I'm thinking of the recent disc of Nielsen symphonies by Colin Davis), that's not the case here. Produced by the estimable James Mallinson, these recordings are spacious, transparent, richly detailed, and also full of warmth. In the end, I'm left with a mixed recommendation. For fans of Gergiev, these performances will be self-recommending. For others, the pluses (demonstration quality sound, virtuosic orchestral playing, and adventurous interpretations) may well outweigh the minuses (occasional willfulness). Your call.







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