Composers Conduct = RAVEL: Bolero; Piano Concerto in G Major; ROUSSEL: Le Festin de l’araignee, Op. 17; Cinq melodies; SCHMITT: La Tragedie de Salome, Op. 50; ELGAR: Suites 1 and 2 to The Wand of Youth, Op. 1 – Marguerite Long, piano/Claire Croiza, mezzo-soprano/Lamoureux Orchestra/ Maurice Ravel/Albert Roussel, piano and conductor/Walther Staram Concert Orchestra/Florent Schmitt/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar – Urania WS 121.102 2 CD, 66:44; 64:48 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
“Orchestral tissue without music” is how Ravel described his most famous composition, the Bolero of 1928, whose only modulation occurs after a series of dynamic “variations” that simply call for a larger complement of players. Like all of Ravel’s dance forms, this too explodes at the finale, a sort of convulsion that signals the “death” of the form. Ravel’s 1930 Paris recording (January 30) came hard on the heels of the first inscription by Piero Coppola, and Ravel’s tempo remains deliberate and stately. Still, he manages an inexorable excitement, and the horn fanfares quite move us in natural sympathy to the mesmerizing Spanish (fandango) temperament of the piece. The 1932 Piano Concerto in G Major with Marguerite Long (1874-1966) remains a classic of its kind – witty, dry, and facile as a long glass of jazzy champagne. The tempos move quickly, though the fascinating harp cadenza wafts in a sultry space before the bluesy riffs intrude into its vaporous gauze. If Saint-Saens and Gershwin serve inspirations for the first movement, the Mozart model operates in the dreamy Allegro assai, taken at a moderate pace and suffused with lovely woodwind effects over the piano ostinati. Wicked perpetual motion in blues and stride rhythms compels Long and Ravel for the Presto, the music often rattling into a toy march that Leopold Mozart could well savor. The clattery energy and bemused wit carries to a deftly synchronized coda, Long in fine fettle fro the final run to the pert conclusion.
Albert Roussel leads his own ballet-pantomime The Spider’s Feast (1912) in a Paris recording from 1928. Sliding strings and inventive counterpoint capture the ubiquitous web from this predatory garden, wherein even the ravenous spider will be consumed by a praying mantis. A deft flute part characterizes this busy score, along with marvelous brass color-punctuations, particularly in the longest scene, the Dance of the Butterfly. The Hatching, Funeral, and Dance of the Ephemera remind us of Roussel’s idiosyncratic approach to Impressionist harmony, Debussy with a Moorish or Algerian slant. Roussel accompanies mezzo-soprano Claire Croiza in 1929 for Five Melodies, of which the first, “The Bedewed Garden,” inserts keyboard droplets in every bar while the dry-toned singer intones a gauzy melodic line that invokes the skies. Invocation,”Op. 8, No. 3 moves as a slow nocturne, brooding and nostalgic. A note of desperation invades “Amoureux separe,” from Op. 12, a parting of not-so-sweet-sorrow. A static meditation, “Light,” Op. 19, No. 1 has a piano part not far from Ravel’s “Le Gibet” from the Gaspard el ala Nuit Suite. Most intricate metrically, the “Sarabande,” Op. 20, No. 2 moves from a hazy angst to a sense of love’s assurance.
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) composed his La Tragedie de Salome in 1907, and it incorporates an exoticism we associate with Borodin and the Impressionism we ascribe to Debussy–especially the “Danse des perles”–with its reminiscences of La Mer. Stravinsky openly admired the score, while Satie thoroughly detested Schmitt’s notion of orchestration. The performance Schmitt leads is from the Champs-Elysees, Paris (18-19 April 1930). Occasionally delving into bitonality and polyrhythms, Schmitt’s music easily translates into a medium Stravinsky would grasp for his own ends. Set in the Palace of Herod near the Dead Sea, the ballet depicts John the Baptist’s shielding Salome’s nudity from Herod after her veils have been sundered. Herod’s wrath fixates on John’s beheading, and his severed head reappears in the final “Dance of Fear” which, again, adumbrates Stravinsky’s later means.
Sir Edward Elgar devoted himself to recording many of his works, and perhaps the most famous of his inscriptions remains the B Minor Violin Concerto with a young Yehudi Menuhin from 1932. The Wand of Youth Music: Music to a Child’s Play (1907-1908) was recorded 19-20 December 1928. Several of the 13 movements of the two suites have a certain “antique” sound, a result of the composer’s addiction to Handel while nodding to Schumann for an abiding interest in childhood. I became fascinated with this Op. 1 courtesy of Eduard van Beinum’s London LP record with the London Philharmonic, but this hearty electrical inscription enjoys a responsive LSO whose capacity to play in a French or pseudo-Russian style apologizes to none. “The Fairy Pipers” takes its rhythmic cue from Tchaikovsky’s Arabian Dance from The Nutcracker. “Slumber Scene” offers a lovely nocturne in Faure harmonies. Busy bass fiddles and flutes invoke “Fairies and Giants,” the sound more Brahms than Mendelssohn or Weber. “Moths and Butterflies” from Suite No. 2 enjoys the light touch that British composers can bring to their garden spots on their blessed isle. “The Tame Bears” and “The Wild Bears” bring the set to a close, alternately warmly exotic and friskily Slavic teddies compete for our attention, depending on whether the children are cuddling round the hearth or outside having a snowball fight.
[Fidelity is not on the level of the work of Pristine or Obert-Thorn, and the masters have a dated pseudo-stereo effect, so this not quite at the present day standard of restoration. Though not nearly as poor as the first Sonic Solutions restorations on Philips of some of these same selections…Ed.]
Mid-century performances, Eduard Erdmann, piano