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RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé; Pavane – Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/ Gustavo Gimeno – Pentatone

RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet); Une barque sur l’océan; Pavane pour une infante défunte – Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/ Gustavo Gimeno – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC5186652, 72:35 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

A perfumed and utterly intoxicating reading of Ravel’s masterpiece.

It was the Greek writer Longus, probably from around the 2nd century AD, that gave Maurice Ravel the inspiration for his widely-acclaimed—and some say greatest—masterpiece Daphnis et Chloé. The three-scene, one act “choreographic symphony” (as Ravel called it) was written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, surely one of the most luxuriant and hothouse scores ever set to paper. The exceptionally large orchestra provides the composer with multitudinous opportunities to show his extraordinary ability in orchestration, and he rarely lets us down, from music of subtlety and seduction to as rousing a final bacchanal as has ever been composed. The story itself is quite subjugated to the music, and sets itself up for the imagery and scents of the impressionist era rather than driving home any sort of musical storyline interpretation. Perhaps because of this, Ravel himself sensed that this hour-long work demanded resuscitation in the form of smaller suites to capture the concert hall imagination, and in fact most people know this piece primarily through one of the two suites, especially the second one. (For a great recording, look no further than Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra way back in the early seventies, now available in remastered SACD format from Sony.)

The composition almost cries out for full-frontal Super Audio treatment, and that’s what we get here. For a long while I salivated over the Dutoit/ Montreal reading on London, and even though it is in standard pre-hyper-digitalized stereo, it still stands as one of the finest readings on disc. Before you ask about the Pierre Monteux recording—and he gave the premiere of the piece—I am not a fan, and never have thought that much about his conducting abilities, even though I studied under one of his students. To me, the Munch recording is much more exciting, and is also available from RCA’s remastered SACD Living Stereo series from around 15 years ago. But now we must deal with this new issue from the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and their young conductor Gustavo Gimeno, and the results are fantastic. Gimeno understands the sensuality of the score and lets no opportunity slip by to let us wallow in it. After all, without the eye-popping involvement of the ballet visuals, we are left with only the music to evocate the stage action, and the orchestra is definitely up to the task of eliciting the most wonderfully beautiful sounds, as good as I have heard on record. Part of the answer lies in the fantastic recording that Pentatone has captured in gorgeously balanced Super Audio surround sound.

The other two pieces are orchestrations Ravel made from piano pieces. Pavane pour une infante défunte is his earliest (1899), and is sterling in this relaxed and genial reading. 1904/5 saw the creation of Miroirs, a five-movement piece of which Une barque sur l’océan is the third. Ravel had reservations about the orchestration, and it was only published in 1950, unlike its comrade Alborada del gracioso, movement five of the same piano work that was a contemporary of the famous—and popular—La Mer. Again, Maestro Gimeno has the work firmly in hand, giving it the same excellent balances and visceral aural projection.

Superb all around, and well worth the investment.

—Steven Ritter

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