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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937
L'enfant et les sortilèges
(1925) [44:22]
Ma Mère L’Oye [28:29]

L’Enfant - Magdalena Kožena
Le Feu, La Princesse, Le Rossignol - Annick Massis
Une Pastourelle, La Chauve-souris, La Chouette - Mojca Erdmann
La Bergère, La Chatte, L’Ecureuil, Un Patre - Sophie Koch
Maman, La Tasse Chinoise, La Libellule - Nathalie Stutzmann
La Theriere, Le Petet Vieillard, La Reinette - Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
L’Horloge Comtoise, Le Chat - François Le Roux
Le Fauteuil, Un Arbre - José van Dam
Berlin Radio Choir
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 24-28 September 2008, Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 2 64197 2 [72:58]

CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline


Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937
L'enfant et les sortilèges
(1925) [45:49]
Shéhérazade (1903) [18:30]
L’Enfant - Julie Boulianne (mezzo)
Maman, La Libellule, L’Ecureuil - Geneviève Després (mezzo)
La Tasse chinoise, Un Patre, La Chatte - Kirsten Gunlogson (mezzo)
La Theiere, Le Petit Vieillard, La rainette - Philippe Castagner (tenor)
L’Orloge comtoise, Le Chat - Ian Greenlaw (baritone)
Le Fauteuil, Un Arbre - Kevin Short (bass-baritone)
La Princesse, Le Chauve-souris - Agathe Martel (soprano)
Le Feu, Le Rossignol - Cassandre Prévost (soprano)
La Bergère, Une Pastourelle, La Chouette - Julie Cox (soprano)
Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chattanooga Boys Choir,
Members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Alastair Willis
Julie Boulianne (mezzo) (Shéhérazade)
rec. 5 December 2006 (L'enfant et les sortilèges) and 17 June 2007 (Shéhérazade)
NAXOS 8.660215 [64:19]

Experience Classicsonline


Once upon a time, when I too was a child, I used to enjoy fiddling around under the bedclothes with a small FM radio which had become redundant after the purchase of some sturdy brown 1970s Hi-Fi. I shall never forget the moment when, quite by accident, I stumbled across that moment at the start of Part II of L'enfant et les sortilèges, where the tremolo strings cast their nocturnal spell in the moonlit garden, the slide whistle conjures an owl, and the piccolo a nightingale. That moment haunted me for ages, living like an invisible musical imp on one shoulder, telling me to be a composer in a language I didn’t yet understand. Not knowing what it was I had been hearing however, it became something of a holy grail, eternally to be sought and cherished once rediscovered. The magic of that passage and the strange operatic events which surround it came alive once again rather later than I care to admit, when I was introduced, or rather re-introduced, to the truly potent recording of L'enfant et les sortilèges with Lorin Maazel on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Here indeed was my musical Holy Grail. Made in 1961, this recording still sounds fresh as a daisy, and is filled with all of that richly anarchic playing which was once a significant feature of French orchestral character. Filled with apparent risk-taking, the performance is of course a magical circus act, superbly well prepared, but carrying a timelessness and potency born of a palpable sense of fun and creative spontaneity.

Knowing in advance that these two new recordings of L'enfant et les sortilèges were on their way, I have had a few very pleasant sessions re-acquainting myself with the Maazel R.T.F. recording and wondering how on earth anyone could do better. It seems to resist all comers, and to my mind has certainly yet to be topped until now. In fact, there are surprisingly few recordings of this marvellously entertaining and delightfully inventive and compact opera in the catalogue at the moment. Now we have two all at once; and hurrah for that.      

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a one-act opera, the music written on a libretto by the French novelist Colette. Classic elements of other famous fairytales can be found in the story, in which a little boy, made to stay his room by his mother, takes out a petty revenge on his furniture and fittings only to see them spring indignantly to life. After some exhausting confrontations, encounters with the animals in the garden and struggles with mental arithmetic, the child is eventually redeemed by his own suffering, his change of heart and the bond of love between him and his mother.

I’m going to start with Alastair Willis conducting his American forces on Naxos. This release has of course the benefit of economy on its side, and an admirable secret weapon which I shall come to later. The opening is not entirely promising however, with the character of the child taken in rich, fruity and full-frontal operatic style by Julie Boulianne. Yes, this is grown-up opera, but compared with the realistic and believably testy expression of Francoise Ogéas on Maazel’s DG disc it’s hard to imagine this portrayal as having anything much child-like to offer. There are very many good things about this recording, and I don’t want to harp on about the negatives when, taken in isolation, this disc would probably be welcomed with fewer complaints. My problem is that, whenever I thought, ‘this is good’, it was Ravel who was providing the interest – musically or in terms of orchestration, while the cast are fairly consistently operatic. By this, I mean that all of the stereotypical operatic vocal styles are expertly present, without very much deviation from standard technique in order to bring the characters truly to life. Kevin Short, for instance, has that fine, wide vibrato which makes you wonder which notes he is really singing, but it is the orchestration which has to make up for a lack of woodiness in his Armchair – or is that over-woodiness. Kirsten Gunlogson goes a little further, but while her Chatte is very cat-like, you realise that her earlier Tasse chinoise was also quite cat-like – her rather thin mezzo sound suiting both very well, but not showing a great deal of breadth when it comes to character range. Ian Greenlaw’s Chat has a disturbing little chuckle in the voice, but again seems more concerned with maintaining nice tone than convincing us of real cat-ness.

There are a few stars in this firmament, and I very much like Cassandre Prévost’s lighter sound but clear message as the fire which warns the child to ‘Get back! I warm the Good!’ Julie Cox is another fine singer, but her Shepherdess is too sophisticated and refined to my ears, unless it is the fantasy Fragonard version one has in mind. I can’t really tell her apart from the Princess, also very ably sung by Agathe Martel. No, what this recording lacks in genuine character it would probably make up for in visual clues during a staged version. The orchestra is very fine, but doesn’t quite have that sense of acidic penetration and anarchic abandon that I admire in the Maazel. The choirs are good enough, though a little recessed in the recorded mix. The frogs are a bit dull, and you can hear the Chattanooga Boys Choir hanging on by the skins of their teeth in the technically demanding Deux robinets… moment. 

I am reluctant to be too down on this Naxos L'enfant et les sortilèges. There is nothing really weak about it, and both performances and recording are technically of a very high order. There is no libretto in the booklet, but the notes are extensive and include a detailed track by track description of the action which more than adequately makes up for the absence of the actual sung words. Where this to be the only recording available then it would be an instant operatic hit, but this is also its Achilles heel – as opera it ticks all the boxes, but as food for the imagination: humorous, chilling and even frightening, or filled with the kind of wonder and delight which has the tears welling up, it steadfastly refuses to stand up and elbow aside our comfortable preconceptions about what ‘good opera’ should be. For this reason, the final choral apotheosis transports us effectively up the ‘stairway to heaven’, but, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t have me reaching for the Kleenex. What this disc does have however, is a very fine recording of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. In the last couple of seasons I’ve been playing this piece in an arrangement for the Netherlands Flute Orchestra with Roberta Alexander as soloist, so I know every note like the pores in my pinky. There are numerous distinguished recordings which will always retain classic status in this work, but Julie Boulianne’s singing is gorgeously expressive, filled with the tensions and moments of resignation and contrasts of joy and tragedy in each of the three songs. This, coupled with a suitably opulent orchestral sound from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, makes for a version of this piece to which I would happily listen; long and often.

Moving on to the EMI disc, the programme on Sir Simon Rattle’s recordings is that of the same cast and forces as with the production as seen and very positively reviewed by Mark Berry. As a recording, the Berlin Philharmonie offers a grander stage for both singers and musicians, and the musical canvas seems to give the impression of wider swings between chamber-music effects and the grander gestures: there is certainly a deeper sonic perspective than with the Naxos disc. Detail is excellent in the recording without sounding unnatural, but being actually able to hear clearly the melodic line in the double-bass harmonics in the opening for instance is a very nice way to start. Singers aside, the Berlin musicians seem to be enjoying themselves much more than the Nashville players. They find more schwung in the burlesque moments of the first half, almost running the delightful risk of turning Ravel into Weill on occasion.

This is not the first time Simon Rattle has conducted this opera, with one of his early career successes being a production in Liverpool in 1974 when he was only nineteen. Ravel’s sense of Gallic fantasy might not be the kind of genre which you would initially expect to be meat and drink to a heavyweight orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic, but the sparkle and swagger everyone brings to this performance is if anything the entire opposite of Teutonic stodge. Having criticised Julie Boulianne of un-childlike and over-operatic tendencies in this opera, Magdalena Kožená can’t really be said to be much less so. She can however bring a level of tenderness to the role which helps suspend our disbelief, and such arias as Toi, le coeur de la rose are restrained and deeply touching. The surrounding characterisations are in a different league to those on the Naxos recording, risks sound as if they are being taken, extremes are run for and hit hard, the singers play for the audience rather than for the microphones. The cat duet is breathtakingly menacing, the tree and supporting other trees are superbly lugubrious, birds chatter and sing with eccentric vocal gestures, and frogs and ducks are fantastic anthropomorphic creations which set the imagination popping. Nathalie Stutzmann, Sophie Koch, François le Roux and José van Dam form a very strong cast indeed, but you rarely have the feeling of anything other than a powerful sense of teamwork and ensemble, and never the sense of a bunch of solo stars jostling for pre-eminence.

Ma Mere L’Oye is an equal success, and, as a piece which inhabits a similarly child-based world to the opera, is a not entirely unexpected coupling – indeed, André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon did the same not so very long ago. Sir Simon Rattle’s conducting draws an almost analytical sense of dynamic detail from the orchestra; which shimmers, sparkles and oozes romantically with inch perfect discipline. The Berlin Philharmonic’s superb qualities are given free reign, and the instrumental solos are taken with great sensitivity and a thankful restraint and sympathy in terms of vibrato and timbre. Casually playful virtuosity contrasts marvellously with the velvety richness the entire orchestra can create in such languorous movements as the final Le jardin féerique, and this is a stunning recording which can stand among the best on record.

To conclude: is that glorious old 1961 classic on DG with Lorin Maazel now finally deposed? The answer has to be a resounding non, but only in the sense that it can and should always happily co-exist with any recording we can come up with now and in the future. Playing it once again I still find it is the version which would have me rolling on the floor with laughter and tears were I inclined, or had the space so to do. The furniture smashing scene early on has a Tom & Jerry madness which has yet to be beaten, and as I go on I find it still wipes the floor with all comers at just about every point of comparison – How’s your mug? for instance – ah, they knew how to act then, something I do miss with most performances or recordings these days. If you can find a copy don’t be put off by the short playing time – it’s a straight transfer from the original LP release and has no further coupling, but every second is sheer musical gold. The Berlin Philharmonic EMI recording comes a close second, with plenty of wow factor in both the sound quality and the performance. While losing out to the sheer élan of the elderly DG recording the singers and players do come up with a valid new alternative which is both immediately enjoyable and durable, and if you didn’t know the Maazel, you certainly wouldn’t feel sold short with this recording. Returning to the U.S. based recording on Naxos with Alastair Willis I stand by my position, placing it in a firm third, but certainly not discounting it as a contender at budget price. Certainly the presentation beats EMI which, while having the complete libretto, has fairly brief booklet notes. You will also note in the header to this review that the voice types are not given for the EMI disc – which is the case on the release, as are there no biographies of the singers. The EMI disc also has rather fewer access points – Naxos has 25 to EMI’s 8. These and the extended synopsis are an excellent study tool and a definite plus point to Naxos. My real reason for treasuring this disc is however the delicious Shéhérazade, to which for me the opera is a rather extravagant bonus.


Dominy Clements




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