RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe–Suite No. 2; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; La Valse; Ma Mere L’Oye–Suite – Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nezet-Seguin – EMI Classics 9 66342 2, 62:02 ****:
In 2008 the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin succeeded Valery Gergiev as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and this “dance-music” of Ravel inscription Rec. 13-16 June 2007) marks their debut on records.
The familiar second suite from Daphnis et Chloe provides a dazzling opportunity for sensuous display from the Rotterdam strings and woodwinds, especially as the opening Lever du jour depicts a spectacular Arcadian sunrise. Melting and swirling textures shed their mutes as the sound coalesces into an illumined landscape that a shepherd’s pipe might respond to the modal pantheism enacted on a grand scale. The Rotterdam cello and viola line exerts just as much erotic energy as the upper voices from brass and triangle. Virtuoso flute, harp and diaphanous strings rule the Pantomime, and we can feel vapors rise off the Greek peaks of Ravel’s imagination. The last page anticipates the bacchanalia of the Danse generale, blaring trumpets and vibrant tympani, willful percussion and shimmering strings in celebration of Daphnis and Chloe’s passionate reunion.
Ravel’s fascination with waltz-rhythm turns to Schubert’s Vienna as a model for his angular studies in the form, his eight Valses nobles et sentimentales from 1912. The Ravel penchant for utmost clarity of line dominates each of the waltzes, etched in that mathematical precision of expression that caused Stravinsky to liken Ravel to a Swiss watchmaker. Diaphanous and liquid, the terse individual waltzes convey nostalgia and limpid eroticism, at once. Melody as such dissolves into sheer texture, a phenomenon akin to the composer’s Bolero. Touched by harp, flute, and oboe, several of the waltzes emanate a hazy luster that Schubert never knew. No. 4 and No. 7 anticipate La Valse of 1920. This apotheosis of the Viennese form has its precursors in Johann Strauss and Emmanuel Chabrier, whose own Habanera we can hear echoed in the last of the 1911 waltz-set. From its initial bass rumblings to the mad explosion of the form at its conclusion, conductor Nezet-Sequin, like Monteux and Ansermet before him, savors every tug in the rhythm, every glissando, and churned metric disjunction. Snare drum, triangle, and harp make their febrile presence felt. The ineluctable whirling reaches critical mass, and the whole structure spasmodically tumbles in much the same way the Austro-Hungarian Empire shattered in its confrontation with meta-politiks.
Quite a change in texture and musical affect for the 1912 orchestration of Mother Goose, that five-movement homage to the spirit of childhood magic: how is it put in Thief of Bagdad: “everything is possible when seen through the eyes of youth.” The stripped-down sonorities of the first two episodes hint at the influence of Satie, and Ravel characterized the suite as “the language of flowers.” At times, the nostalgia becomes almost anguish, as if Dorian Gray were recalling his golden youth prior to the advent of his portrait. We catch harmonies from Pavane for a Dead Princess pass by quickly. Always brilliant, the pentatonic Laideronnette–Empress of the Pagodas resonates with Eastern magic, Mowgli, lacquered-green serpents. Glockenspiel and celesta add to the exotic array of cultured pearls that form this delectable suite. Ever since the Serge Koussevitzky inscription for RCA some sixty years ago, a sense of tragic luminescence has typified recordings of this wonderful suite, and Nezet-Seguin follows in the fecund path. A lovely violin solo marks Tom Thumb’s appearance in this score. Finally, the Apotheosis: The Fairy Garden, a distillation of every impulse to Lost Horizon in music, that tearful nod to vanished youth and childish dreams, without which we are lost.