As a life-long Ravel addict, I'm a sucker for collections like this. Present me with new versions of La Valse or Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (or, indeed of any of Ravel's orchestral masterpieces), and I instantly forget how many other versions of the same music I already have. Sometimes, of course, this can lead to disappointment as the new kid on the block finds himself contending with old masters like Munch, Monteux, Paray, Reiner, Cluytens, and Martinon. But sometimes, as here, the results can be fresh-sounding, individual interpretations that remind me of what it was like to hear this music for the first time.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin's debut at The Metropolitan Opera (in a new production of Bizet's Carmen) was a sensation, but I've only heard him in the kind of heavy-footed Bruckner that should remind all young conductors that, in Bruckner, sometimes slower is not necessarily better. Happily, he seems to have a natural affinity for the music of Ravel, and all four of these very familiar works fare extremely well in his hands.
What I especially admire about Nezet-Seguin's approach is that he creates a distinct and highly specialized sound world for each of these pieces. The second suite from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe is brightly lit and richly colored. The opening sunrise is full of "calme, luxe, etvoluptue:" Nezet-Seguin's leisurely tempo allows this sensuous music to blossom in an altogether natural way. It is a young man's ardent, Romantic response, perhaps a little overindulgent; but, in the end, deeply felt and completely convincing. The concluding "Dansegenerale" builds to a thrilling and intensely satisfying climax.
In Ravel's two portraits of the waltz, I do have longstanding preferences, both conducted by the inimitable and combustible Charles Munch: his 1959 La Valse with his own Boston Symphony, and his 1962 Valses Nobles et Sentimentales guest-conducting the Philidelphia Orchestra. Neither of these remarkable performances has been in any way dimmed by the passage of time. Still, Nezet-Segin has something new to say about both of these works, and I was happy to be able to consider alternative approaches. I've never heard a more inward, introspective Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Nezet-Seguin doesn't resist the charm or grace of the more animated sections, but his approach to the slower music is shrouded in a ghostly nostalgia. Some of it sounds downright spooky.
For those of us who were raised on Munch's hallucinogenic, aggressive La Valse, Nezet-Seguin's more reasonable take on the music may feel just a little sedate. Actually, "sedate" might not be the right word. Compared to Munch's La Valse, the Battle of Midway was sedate. Still, the more I listened to this performance, the more I found to like. There's a bristling sense of swagger and excitement here. If Nezet-Segion downplays the violence and grotesguerie, he does tease out the humor, if not the slapstick, that many others miss. Ma Mere L'Oye is also wonderfully done. Wisely Nezet-Seguin doesn't fuss at the music: here his approach is fairly straightforward, very respectful of Ravel's diaphonous, intensely detailed textures.
The playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic is precise and expressive. They give their new music director everything he asks for. If the sound they project isn't as full or rich as, say, the Boston or Philadelphia Orchestras, they manage the big climaxes without strain or effort. They are, in the end, a very personable and winning band. The sound is appropriately transparent and focused. The producer (Micheal Fine) and engineer (Wolf Dieter Karwatky) have given us a first balcony seat with the orchestra spread before us. I would that the occasional brightness were balanced by a more resonant bottom end, but that's a minor complaint given the success of the whole.
Given the timing on this disc, I'm not quite sure why EMI couldn't have fit another piece into this program (or done the entire Mother Goose ballet and not just the suite. But I won't let that dissuade from giving this effort a strong recommendation. Nezet-Sequin's Ravel can serve as an introduction, or, to more experienced listeners like myself, a reminder of why we continue to love this music. If the conducting here occasionally lacks just a bit of animal vigor, it successfully compensates with performances that are rhythmically alert and gorgeous sounding.
As I write this, word arrives that Nezet-Sequin has been appointed the new Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Apparently American orchestras are now investing in youth. Philadelphia's choice comes after Alan Gilbert's appointment in New York and Gustavo Dudamel's in Los Angeles. Given the example of this disc, I suspect Nezet-Sequin may well be a risk worth taking.