This is the first volume in a survey of the complete orchestral works of Maurice Ravel. It is a delightful and assorted collection nearly spanning the composer's entire career, presented in splendid performances by the Orchestre National de Lyon led by their music director, the venerable American conductor Leonard Slatkin. What spirit each reading exhibits, from the sunny character of Alborado del grazioso to the allure and insouciance of Bolero. Oh yes, some will carp that Slatkin's tempo for Bolero is much faster than what the composer calls for in the score, but most successful performances have favored brisker tempos in the work. While one can argue along the line of violating the "composer's intentions", the slower tempo just doesn't ever seem to work, at least to my ears. And this performance makes about as strong a case for quicker tempos as any I've heard. In sum, while Slatkin doesn't try to come on with a crushing or sonically overwhelming ending, he offers is one of the finest Boleros currently available.
But what may be of equal importance on this recording are the works that appear in between Alborada and Bolero. The Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess), a 1910 orchestration by Ravel of his piano work of the same title (1899), gets a touching performance from Slatkin and his Lyon players. The ensuing Rhapsodie espagnole (1907-08) is a work of entirely different character, though it too is an orchestration by the composer of several of his piano pieces. As the title suggests, the music offers many tasty Spanish flavors. As you may know, Ravel's mother was a Basque who often sang folk songs to young Maurice in his formative years. This effort was one of Ravel's first major orchestral works and its colorful character and brilliant orchestration show it to be a solid composition, an especially delightful one in a performance as atmospheric and spirited as this one.
The Piece en forme de habanera is an orchestral version, with solo violin, of the composer's Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera for voice and piano (1907). At just over three minutes, it is a choice morsel that receives a splendid performance here from solo violinist Jennifer Gilbert. Shéhérazade (1898) is an early orchestral work that already discloses the young composer's mastery of orchestration. Again the performance by Slatkin and his orchestra is spirited and colorful, seemingly perfectly suited to this splendid though second-drawer work. In 1929 Ravel made an orchestral version of his 1895 piano piece Menuet Antique. It is a fine work and again gets a convincing reading from Slatkin and company. Naxos, as usual, provides excellent sound reproduction, and the indefatigable Keith Anderson offers insightful notes. I'm eagerly looking forward to further issues in this project. Strongly recommended.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings