RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet music) – Boston Symphony Orchestra /Tanglewood Festival Chorus/James Levine – BSO Classics multichannel SACD 0801, 54:55 *****:
This is the first orchestral recording on the BSO’s own new label, which is to be commended for offering hybrid SACDs, as do most of the other orchestras in the U.S. and Europe who have launched their own disc labels due to being dropped by the major classical labels. We recently reviewed the very first BSO SACD, which featured their Chamber Ensemble.
This auspicious new release continues a very long association of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Ravel’s greatest work, his Daphnis et Chloe ballet music. It dates all the way back to early conductor Karl Muck, who performed the second of the two ballet suites from the work in 1917, only five years after the premiere of the new ballet. Koussevitzky recorded the same suite in 1928 and again in 1944/45. Following the BSO’s first public performances of the complete score with the wordless chorus, Charles Munch made the famous 1955 RCA recording which is still available on a Living Stereo SACD. (Unfortunately the master for this one was only two-channel and not three like most of the Living Stereo SACDs.) In 1961 Munch and the BSO did Daphnis again, and this version is available on DVD-R, HQCD or CD-R from HDTT; we also reviewed it. Both Bernard Haitink and Seiji Ozawa have also recorded Daphnis with the BSO, but they don’t quite equal the two Munch interpretations.
Now comes James Levine, the current BSO Music Director, and a live recording made in Boston’s Symphony Hall in October of 2007 by the engineers of Boston’s sound/mirror. They did a fantastic job – while all three of the BSO hi-res Daphnis recordings are excellent, this one bests the two previous in many different areas. If pushed to do so, I might summarize their sonics as the 1955 version being a Technicolor film in standard 4:3 format, the 1961 as Cinemascope, and this new SACD as hi-def digital video in 3D!
Although I have never seen the full dance version of Daphnis et Chloe (and would like to); the concert version has stood up very well in symphony halls – thanks to Ravel’s magnificent orchestration chops it becomes one of the most successful and communicative programmatic works ever. The very French take on the Grecian themes involving shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, pirates and the god Pan is laid out in glorious impressionistic colors where everything has been carefully planned to fit together like a superb mosaic, and not to degenerate into a loose wash of sounds. One of the masterpieces of programmatic music is the Dawn segment of the third part of the ballet, also included in the second suite. I used that as the sign-on theme for a classical station I once managed in San Francisco. Remember what Stravinsky said about Ravel being like a Swiss watchmaker in his compositions.
The work’s orchestral details are now presented to our ears with more depth and spatiality than ever before. The sound is very rich, and without the tendency to muddiness of the 1955 recording or the occasional stridency of the 1961 recording. The wordless chorus is more “there” – there may be no lyrics to be discerned, but Ravel’s intent in using them instrumentally is so much more in evidence here. The buildup of the doublebasses for the rowdy pirates really sounds like doublebasses and not just some amorphous rumbles in the bass end. The conclusion of the 1955 SACD sounds very constricted and almost cut off suddenly, with a much smaller-sounding chorus. The whole is rather muffled and nothing like the proper spectacular ending to the work on this new SACD.
I guess the BSO hasn’t worked out distribution for their new label as yet; you can get it from the BSO web site, where you can also see a brief video of Maestro Levine conducting some of Daphnis et Chloe.
— John Sunier