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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet in three scenes * (1909-12) [51:47]
Rapsodie espagnole (Spanish rhapsody) (1907-08) [15:08]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) (1899, orch. 1910) [06:32]
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden *
rec. 27-28 April 1959 (Daphnis), 11-13 December 1961 (Rapsodie/Pavane), Kingsway Hall, London, England. ADD
DECCA - THE ORIGINALS - 475 7525 [73:42]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, complete ballet in three scenes (1909-12) [55:25]
Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeur de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. November 2004 in Salle Olivier Messiaen, Radio France, Paris. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 5706 [55:25]

One of Ravel’s finest scores, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé was written to a commission from the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, which was received probably in 1909. Diaghilev’s brilliant Ballets Russes were enjoying an immense success during their first Paris season, and the impresario was eager to secure new works for the following year from leading French composers. Ravel started work on Daphnis in June 1909, using an adaptation of the ancient Greek novel by Longus, which had been prepared by the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. Progress was fitful however, and it was another three years before the work reached the stage.
Ravel described Daphnis et Chloé as a “symphonie choréographique” though Diaghilev complained that it was more “symphonique” than “choréographique.” At around 50 to 55 minutes, it is Ravel’s longest work, and is scored for a large orchestra, including fifteen types of percussion, with a wordless mixed chorus, heard onstage and offstage. The latter was the cause of a public dispute when Diaghilev staged the work in London without a chorus. An angry Ravel wrote a scathing letter which was published in The Times and other London papers in June 1914.
There was from the outset a difference in concept between Fokine, who wanted to capture the pagan imagery of ancient Greek vases, and Ravel who was inspired by scenes of 18th century painting. It has been argued that the eroticism of Longus’s original text, and perhaps of Fokine’s vision, was alien to Ravel’s temperament and experience, so that the ballet is an unconvincingly chaste rendering of an exuberant love story. At the very least, Ravel’s portrayal of sexual passion is most discreet, and the listener will judge how far his melodies and their orchestration may still fire the imagination.
Rehearsals for the stage production were stormy, with tensions between Nijinsky, in dancing the role of Daphnis, Diaghilev, and Fokine; who left the company at the end of that season. The première, given on 8 June 1912 at the Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet, came only ten days after the production on the same stage as Debussy’s ballet Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faun (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), in which Nijinsky’s erotic finale had caused a furore. Ravel’s Daphnis received only two performances in that season, and its initial impact was muted, at least in comparison with Stravinsky's L'Oiseau de feu and Petrouchka, unveiled in the previous two seasons of the Ballets Russes.
Daphnis has perhaps had its greatest success in concert performances and recordings, in which its orchestral virtuosity and organic structure can be most fully explored. Ravel arranged two orchestral suites with little alteration from the full score:
•   Suite d'orchestre No.1: Nocturne, Interlude, Danse guerrière.
•   Suite d'orchestre No.2: Lever du jour, Pantomime, Danse générale/Bacchanale.
On the Decca re-issue the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir under Pierre Monteux prove themselves to be in superb form providing some sumptuous sounds in familiar music for which they clearly have a great affection. However Myung-Whun Chung and his Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeur de Radio France, on a brand new recording for Deutsche Grammophon,cannot compete with Monteux’s LSO, who prove to be in a different league throughout. This is one of those very special Kingsway Hall recording sessions that caught Monteux’s crack London orchestra in its most inspired form.
In the Scéne - Danse grotesque de Dorcon Monteux’s LSO builds up a convincing sense of tension and apprehension and in the Danse légère et gracieuse de Daphnis the playing has a highly sensitive, feather-light quality. With Monteux the Scène - Danse de Lycéion - Scéne (les pirates) builds to a tremendous climax at 4.14 (track 5). I love Monteux’s power and precision in the Danse guerrière, which demonstrates the excellence of the brass and woodwind, heard magnificently at 3.49-4.04 (track 8). In the Danse suppliante de Chloé Monteux brings a stifling, indolent quality to the scene which he expertly contrasts with convincing menacing gestures at 4.10-4.57 (track 9). The rapturous quality and intensity of the orchestral textures in the Scène - Lever du jour is quite outstanding and the mood Monteux evokes would be difficult to match anywhere. In the Pantomime Monteux and his London players convey a marvellous pastoral character that is somewhat akin to the Mendelssohnian fantasy world of elves, fairies and visionary landscapes. In the final Scène - Danse générale the woodwind is particularity impressive at 1.09-1.45 (track 12). Monteux cranks up the excitement wonderfully in the voluptuous mood of the dizzily swirling bacchanalian dance that concludes the score.
In the opening Introduction et Danse réligieuse Myung-Whun Chung’s Radio France forces offer opulent playing that almost seems at times leaden and arduous when compared to Monteux and also Charles Munch and his Boston players on RCA. In a search for additional expression Chung takes his French orchestra too slow, a feature that seems especially pronounced in the Danse légère et gracieuse de Daphnis at 0.00-1.06 (track 7). I admired Chung’s interpretation of the Danse guerrière which has strength and expression. The climax at 3.17-3.40 (track 13) is well realised, if not providing the most muscular of playing. In the Danse suppliante de Chloé Chung and his French players offer an unsettling, sultry, rather oppressive quality to the score at 0.00- 3.18 (track 14). The Scène - Lever du jour is disappointingly lacking in atmosphere, without that special shimmering and euphoric quality, that is provided by Monteux and Munch on RCA. The flute solo in Pantomime is well played even if it does lack that special haunting ingredient that is available on the very finest versions. Chung and his French Radio players come out of their shell for the closing Scène - Danse générale. They manage to provide an immediacy and a drive that had previously been absent, a feature that makes one long for what Chung might have achieved.
When selecting a complete account of Daphnis et Chloé this lusciously dramatic performance from Pierre Monteux with the LSO goes straight to the very top rank of recommended versions, fully validating Decca’s selection as one of their ‘Legendary Recording’ series. The sound quality of this re-issue is clear and well balanced, belying its near fifty years age. Unfortunately the performance from Myung-Whun Chung with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France pales by comparison and is never a serious contender as a recommended version. Warmly recorded Chung’s performance lacks passion and vitality, and the chosen tempos seem far too slow.
For many the benchmark recording of the complete Daphnis et Chloé is the evergreen 1950s account from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA 09026 61846-2. Munch and his Boston players are in tremendous form offering an electrifying performance that is vitally dramatic and sharply coloured. Although it is difficult to select a single winning version of Daphnis, Pierre Monteux with the LSO on this superb Decca re-issue demonstrate that there is only a cigarette paper between themselves and Munch’s RCA reading. I simply cannot imagine anyone being less than happy to own either account, such is their undoubted quality.
The Pavane was originally a piano piece, written in early 1899, and given its first public performance by Ricardo Viñes in 1902. The score was dedicated to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, the former Winnaretta Singer who inherited the large fortune that her father had made from sewing machines. It was her salon that Ravel attended while a student, and later. The Pavane was orchestrated by Ravel in 1910 and first performed at a Promenade concert in London conducted by Henry Wood in 1911.
Pierre Monteux and the LSO provide a reading of constant beauty with considerable finesse and superbly recorded. On balance I just prefer the version of the Pavane from Charles Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Decca 00289 458 6052. Dutoit’s wonderfully colourful orchestral playing really does catch the Montreal players right in their prime.
This Rapsodie espagnole is one of several works in which Ravel reflects his fascination with Spanish subjects. The score is one of Ravel’s earliest full-scale compositions for orchestra, although, the pieces were at first sketched in a version for two pianos in the summer of 1907. The orchestration was completed in February 1908 and the first performance took place a month later. The four movement score was dedicated “À mon cher maître Charles de Bériot”; Bériot was Ravel’s piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire from 1891 to 1895.
Pierre Monteux and the LSO recorded the Rapsodie espagnole in the Kingsway Hall in the winter of 1961. Monteux’s reading provides freshness and charm with a wealth of beautifully crafted detail. Although I am more than happy with Monteux’s performance. for its vitality and shimmering opulent colour, I marginally prefer the version, from Eduardo Mata with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recorded in the late 1970s on RCA 74321 68015-2.
To sum up: The newly released account from Myung-Whun Chung on Deutsche Grammophon does not inspire and with only one work included represents poor value. This compares with the superbly performed and recorded Decca re-issue of the complete Daphnis et Chloé from Monteux and the LSO which is beyond criticism. The inclusion of the Rapsodie espagnole and the Pavane adds to the desirability of this splendid disc.
Michael Cookson

Technical Note - Listening tests do not show any obvious difference in sound quality between the Monteux re-release and its original CD issue.


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