London Jubilee's Ansermet Edition is off to a grand start, and these two releases bring together nearly all of his stereo Ravel recordings, made between 1957 and 1965. Listening to these recordings again after nearly twenty years, I was struck first of all by the uniformly high quality of the sonics. Daphnis, especially, should serve as model of clarity and brilliance for today's recording engineers. The other items in the collection are not far behind in the quality of the recorded sound.
The Suisse Romande may not have been the world's greatest orchestra, but they achieved wonders with Ansermet in charge. This conductor was a supreme colorist, and Ravel's rich orchestral writing gave him numerous opportunities to display his prowess. A few highlights: the seductive flute and warmly glowing clarinet in Boléro; the sexy oboe in IV of Rapsodie espagñole; the sensuous muted strings in the Pavane; the heart-breaking violin solo in the "Fairy Garden" movement from Mother Goose; well, obviously, I could go on and on. In addition, Ansermet's balances are always exquisite. Ravel's delicate inner voices and spiky dissonances are always clearly audible, but never obtrusive.
This conductor also has an unerring sense of tempo. His Boléro is deliberately paced, yet brilliantly effective. Tempos in Valses nobles et sentimentales are generally on the slow side, however they are so aptly chosen that for once I can imagine dancing to this music. The closing moments of Daphnis, too, are more deliberate than the norm but thrilling nonetheless. The beloved Pavane, in contrast, is taken somewhat faster than usual, yet it is a deeply moving experience. On several occasions Ansermet's tempos at first seem too slow or too fast. Yet if you listen to the recording once again, you'll discover that his tempos are absolutely right for the music.
Finally, Ansermet was one of the most effective story-tellers to ever wield a baton. His Mother Goose is so incredibly pictorial that listening to the recording is like flipping through the pages of a brilliantly illustrated children's book. (By the way, Ansermet includes the Prélude and danse du rouet here, but leaves out the utterly unnecessary bridge passages between the movements which Ravel tacked on to the complete ballet). Ansermet's Daphnis is among the most dramatic performances on record. He captures the mood of each scene perfectly, while never for a moment forgetting the organic unity of the score. I have often found complete performances of this ballet to be interminable. Ansermet's uncanny ability to find the melodic richness inherent in every bar insures that this version is never dull or uninteresting, even when the musical material is particularly thin.
The booklets included with these two discs are each 16 pages long, and both waste three pages with a listing of the remaining discs in the Ansermet Edition - something which could have easily been printed on a single page. Both have one or more blank pages as well, and two pages in the second volume are taken up with a barely readable letter from Ravel to Ansermet. Some of that wasted space could have been used for a translation of the letter for those who don't read French and would also like a summary of the action of Daphnis and Chloé.
While I still prefer the dynamic Paul Paray in Boléro and La Valse, you can't go wrong with either or both of these magnificent discs. Don't wait to indulge yourself.
Copyright © 1995, Thomas Godell.
This review originally appeared in the American Record Guide