RAVEL by Cluytens = Orchestral Retrospective – Samson Francois, piano/ Paris Conservatory Orch./ Andre Cluytens – Urania Arts

RAVEL by Cluytens = Bolero; La Valse; Rapsodie espagnole; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet antique; Pavane pour une Infante defunte; Le tombeau de Couperin; Ma mere l’oye – Suite; Alborada del gracioso; Une barque sur l’ocean; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand – Samson Francois, piano/ Paris Conservatory Orchestra/ Andre Cluytens – Urania Arts Stereo WS 121.268-2 (2 CDs) 73:26; 78:59 (11/2/16) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Urania selectively assembles the Ravel legacy of Belgian conductor Andre Cluytens, who made France his adoptive homeland.

Given that Erato has issued a 65-CD retrospective on Belgian maestro Andre Cluytens (1905-1967), this Ravel set on Urania may relieve some of the fiscal (and storage) burdens of so extensive a collection. Cluytens and Samson Francois did record the G Major Concerto, but that you must seek on other sources, including the Erato set. At least one commentator has complained about both the Urania cover art – he calls it “pornographic” – and the price, so caveat emptor!

The set opens with Cluytens’ 1961 rendition of the ever-effective Bolero, that amazing bit of “orchestration without music” (1927) that Ravel hoped would become the whistling staple of every Parisian pushcart owner. Having set a moderate tempo, the work evolves inexorably along its instrumental crescendo in a glory of Technicolor. The visceral excitement continues with La Valse from 1961, the composer’s invocation (1920) of the Viennese dance form’s culmination and apotheosis – courtesy of some wicked trumpet work – at once.

The 1908 Rapsodie espagnole (1961) capitalizes on Ravel’s own Spanish origins, and it retains an exceptional flair for such an early coup in Ravel’s output. Cluytens captures its exotic, often lush ardor with idiomatic poise. The 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales (rec. 1962) pay homage to Schubert by way of Paris and Vienna, touched by a dry irony. Their individual colors – in strings and harp – remain quite delicate, the scoring often reminiscent of the Mother Goose Suite. Ravel came around to orchestrating his 1895 Menuet antique in 1929. Many French composers – Saint-Saens, Roussel, and D’Indy among them – delight in composing in an archaic style that resurrects the likes of Lully, Rameau, and Couperin. Here, Ravel means to pay respects to Emmanuel Chabrier, who encouraged Ravel’s early efforts. The Pavane pour une Infante defunte, played so slowly as Cluytens takes it (1962), becomes a bluesy lament that maintains a resonant luster. The magic and the restrained sadness shimmer in an exalted space.

The orchestral suite (1919) Le Tombeau de Couperin (1962) is Cluytens’ second version: many of these Ravel works saw LP publication 1951-1954. An homage to the fallen soldiers of WW I, the piece conveys a mournful affection for an idealized, courtly sensibility. Ravel simultaneously celebrated selected individuals, and the original, six-movement piano suite had Marguerite Long as its soloist, whose husband Joseph de Marliave – a fine musicologist- had fallen in 1914.  No less rife with sentimental affection – but not affectation – the Ma mere l’Oye ballet suite (1911) derives from Ravel’s affection for Charles Perrault. Cluytens captures the work’s mock-militancy and fairy-tale ambiance with deft color touches, Few, however, convey the tragic nostalgia Koussevitzky attained in his BSO recording of the last section, Le Jardin Feerique, though many – including Cluytens, Martinon, and Munch – have come tenderly close. Ravel set two of his piano pieces from the 1905 Miroirs for orchestra: Cluytens traverses its Alborada del gracioso (rec. 1962) as a toccata for orchestra in Spanish style, moving between d minor and major with lithe, explosive finesse, especially in the trumpet and flute. For the piano version, the Dinu Lipatti performance will still stand against anyone else’s.  Une Barque sur l’ocean (rec. 1962) intones a water piece in f-sharp minor, rife with tricky agogics.

The last offering on this brilliantly scored set, the 1959 recording of the Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand, features a collaboration with the tragically short-lived Samson Francois (1924-1970). Francois held high esteem for conductor Cluytens, and their mutual affection for this darkly dramatic 1931 piece – the most successful effort in the medium inspired by Paul Wittgenstin – engages us from the first low notes in the contrabassoon.  Francois imparts a glowing yet introspective color to this audacious piece, whose jazzy and challenging gymnastics manage to convince us that Francois has cheated and played with both hands.

—Gary Lemco

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