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CD Review

Ravel, Britten & Debussy

Delos 3232
Sylvia McNair, soprano
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Philips 446682-2 DDD 55:41
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I have always found these works attractive, and putting them together on a single CD is a bewitching proposition. And it succeeds quite brilliantly here, thanks to the crystalline, sensuous singing of McNair and Ozawa's sensitive support.

These works make interesting interpretive demands on the singer. Shéhérazade requires her to be childlike, but she must express forbidden desires with great innocence. Les illuminations must be fleshly and knowing (but still exquisitely sung), and La damoiselle élue puts all of these emotional states together, and adds spiritual exaltation to the mix. The singer who would negotiate all three must be flexible indeed, and McNair's intelligence serves her well here. Her lovely voice is an asset too, of course, although there are other singers (notably Régine Crespin) who have recorded a more memorable – but not necessarily more alluring – Shéhérazade. But overall, this CD confirms that Sylvia McNair is a very gifted artist: the possessor of an entrancingly lovely voice and a penetrating intellect.

It is good to hear Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra together again because this team can be depended upon to make refined and beautiful sounds, if nothing else. Ozawa eschews floating McNair in a wash of sound; instead, his approach to this music is precise and just a little cool – not inappropriately so. Susan Graham's contribution to La damoiselle élue also is very fine, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus strengthens its reputation of being one of the finest ensembles of its type.

These recordings were made in 1995 and 1996; the Britten was recorded "live" in front of a mostly quiet audience. The sound is beyond reproach. An additional positive feature of this release is the literate introductory essay by Roger Nichols.

Sonic opium!

Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle

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