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CD Review

Maurice Ravel

3 Classic Albums

  • Boléro
  • Ma mère l'Oye
  • Rapsodie espagnole
  • Une barque sur l'océan
  • Alborada del gracioso
  • Daphnis et Chloé **
  • Piano Concerto in G *
  • Piano Concerto for the Left Hand *
  • Valses nobles et sentimentales ***
* Krystian Zimerman, piano
** Berlin Radio Choir
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
* Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
*** London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 4793070 3CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Much like the Anne-Sophie Mutter set generously sent to me by Universal, these are all acclaimed, even important releases that make a welcome threesome on the Three Classic Albums line. Pierre Boulez's Ravel has always been excellent, and his earlier Sony Classical accounts featured the orchestras of Cleveland and New York. These 1990's efforts retained Cleveland for the Piano Concertos, but added the famed forces of London and Berlin. The results are magical.

The Berlin Philharmonic occupies the first two discs, and they are benchmark recordings for both conductor and orchestra. Ravel isn't the first composer one thinks of in Berlin, and maybe it was the sense of discovery that made this so successful – or maybe not. Whatever the case, Boulez brings his laser-like clarity and rhythmic alacrity with him, and (wonder of wonders) the Berliners follow him every step of the way. The results perfectly mesh the ensemble's storied virtuosity with a genuine sense of balance and unanimous attack. The latter two items aren't hallmarks of the orchestra, but Boulez really gets the true Ravel sound that he wants.

On disc one, seemingly everything goes right. Boléro just might be good enough to make you want to hear it again, but even if you skip it, you get an hour of first-class musicianship allied with stunning ensemble quality. Ma mere l'Oye is flawless, aided by some really lovely sectional work all around. The French have always brought – at their best, anyway – a unique directness to this supposedly fuzzy and impressionistic music. If there is a conductor alive more direct and unsentimental than Boulez, I haven't heard him. The music doesn't ever lack for color or excitement, but not once does it languish or blur. The shorter works are all distinguished, and while the Berlin orchestra doesn't sound as French as some would like, they contribute positively in every way, which is not something you can always say about them during the Abbado era.

In the complete Daphnis et Chloé, other conductors have certainly been a little more steamy, but few have been as attuned to the music's inner voices. The ballet really is best complete; while very beautiful, the Suite simply leaves out too much music. But the tradeoff is that a conductor tackling the complete ballet has to convince us of this truth. Few conductors prove as convincing as Boulez. He really clarifies every aspect of Ravel's colorful orchestrations, insisting that ever individual voice be heard. Solo playing is uniformly excellent; the world-famous stings and winds living up to their reputations. Better still, the brass cuts through textures effortlessly, and the choral parts are ethereal in nature. There are other ways to play this music. Herbert von Karajan also used this orchestra on DG to make beautiful sounds (he recorded the Suite), but Boulez has the advantage of superior sound and the increased orchestral clarity.

Finally, Krystian Zimerman takes the reins for the Piano Concertos. Zimerman is one of those underrated, underappreciated artists who arguably makes too few recordings. Still, he manages to polarize people when he does. These are extremely virtuosic performances by any standard, and the Cleveland Orchestra is an ideal vehicle for Boulez's cool and clear artistic vision. Conductor and orchestra have always had an outstanding musical relationship, especially in this repertoire, and it shows. Zimerman plays extremely well, with whimsical phrasing that suits this music nicely. Argerich, also on DG, may be more exciting still, but this won awards for a reason. Both concertos are outstanding. In fact, the set's only real disappointment is the London Symphony in the Valses that separate the concerted works. They are very good, but Cleveland and Berlin roundly outclass what's on display here, and you frankly wonder what the point was. Still, the clarity of texture happily remains and all three discs are important to the conductor's considerable legacy. This is an entirely worthwhile purchase.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman