“RAVEL: Intimate Masterpieces” = Introduction et Allegro; String Quartet in F Major; Chansons madécasses; Cinq mélodies populaires grecques – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp & others – Oberlin Music
“Quintopia” = RAVEL: Ma mère l’oye; PERCY GRAINGER: Irish Tune from County Derry; Lisbon; Walking Tune; LYLE CHAN: Passage; Calcium Light Night; NIELSEN: Wind Quintet – New Sydney Wind Quintet

“RAVEL: Intimate Masterpieces” = Introduction et Allegro; String Quartet in F Major; Chansons madécasses; Cinq mélodies populaires grecques – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp/ Ellie Dehn, sop,/ Alexa Still, flute/ Richard Hawkins, clar./ Spencer Myer, p./ Jupiter String Quartet – Oberlin Music OC 13-04, 63:15 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

“Quintopia” = RAVEL: Ma mère l’oye (arr. J. Linkelmann); PERCY GRAINGER: Irish Tune from County Derry; Lisbon; Walking Tune; LYLE CHAN: Passage [Untitled, Jan 2010]; Calcium Light Night; NIELSEN: Wind Quintet, Op. 43 – New Sydney Wind Quintet, self, 58:00 [Distr. by Phoenix] ****:

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis seems to have switched alliances once again as far as recording companies is concerned. Not long ago, I reviewed a very nice album of hers on the Azica Records label, which did the honors long performed for her by Telarc. The current album is produced under the auspices of Oberlin Conservatory, where Ms. Kondonassis is chair of the harp department. Oberlin also supplies the excellent group of musicians who back her up in a program of Ravel compositions for instruments and voice.

In date of composition, the pieces range over more than twenty years, though three come from Ravel’s richly lyrical pre-Great War years. In his intriguing notes to the recording, James O’Leary maintains that in these earlier pieces Ravel walked a fine line between Debussian harmonic daring and the structural rigor of the Franck-D’Indy axis of composers who held sway at the Conservatoire where Ravel had studied. If so, the rigor is more evident in the String Quartet of 1903 than in the Introduction and Allegro of two years later. But in both works, the kind of structural complexity that O’Leary demonstrates in his notes is veiled behind the exotic Debussian harmonic language. In fact, for me Ravel outdoes Debussy at his own game in the lovely Quartet. The Jupiter Quartet (who hold a visiting residency at Oberlin) does not wallow in Debussian excess but delivers a crisp, focused performance that provides a small foretaste of the more Classically minded Ravel of the post-War years.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to wallow in the lush strains of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, one of his most frankly sensuous compositions, and the Jupiter along with Kondonassis and her Oberlin colleagues Alexis Still and Richard Hawkins give us a properly ravishing rendition.

The two works for voice with instrumental accompaniment were written twenty years apart but for O’Leary represent Ravel’s increasingly confident search for his own unique voice. In Cinq mélodies populaire grecques, Ravel employs folk melodies that are the height of simplicity and rendered without variation; “instead, the accompaniment provides the variety, but not through any Debussyste harmonic development or Franckist climax-oriented form. Rather, a simple static pattern persists throughout, enlivened by constant, subtle changes in timbre and figuration (a style that Ravel would employ most radically in the 1928 Boléro).” An interesting claim. In any event, soprano Ellie Dehn and Kondonassis give us a lovely version, Dehn’s voice light and crystalline above the equally crystalline accompaniment.

In Chansons madécasses (1926), Ravel explores a whole new harmonic language, flirting with atonality. The Debussian language of the earlier pieces seems far behind. In point of fact, one could argue with the choice of performer here since Ravel stipulated a mezzo or baritone voice in the score. And I guess one could argue that a darker voice would better convey the bitter diatribe of the second song, Aouo! But I find Ellie Dehn’s singing both poised and powerful and feel she has the full measure of the work. Committed Ravelians will have rival versions in their collection, but this one can sit confidently beside them.

The recording, set down in Oberlin’s Clonick Hall, fulfills the promise of the title, offering a warmly intimate sound picture.

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The idea of intimate Ravel carries over to the disc from the New Sydney Wind Quintet, which gives us the French composer’s evocative Ma mère l’oye in an arrangement for winds. Ravel himself later orchestrated his piano-duo original, and some of his instrumental choices colored Joachim Linckelmann’s arrangement. Googling Linckelmann’s name produces references to a number of other arrangements he’s made, including a chamber version of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. The current arrangement is clearly the work of a pro; all the magic of my favorite piece—Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes—is preserved, and Ravel’s wonderful apotheosis at the end of Le jardin féerique is equally magical here.

Australian composer Lyle Chan offers something completely different in his original compositions, especially Passage [Untitled, Jan 2010], which “is in some regards an homage to the music of Carl Stalling, the composer for the Looney Tunes cartoons.” The music does get a little loopy as it progresses, but at the start it is suaver, reminding me of Gershwin in his Hollywood phase. Calcium Night Light, a conflation of an original tune by Chan and the American folksong “Shenandoah,” must be a tribute, then, to Charles Ives, who wrote a piece with the same title. (Coincidentally, it’s one of the spoofy little pieces that Ives called his “cartoons.”) Chan’s work is fun, a sharp contrast to the much more serious-minded Ravel and Nielsen. Chan also provides the arrangement of Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry (a.k.a. “Danny Boy”).

The inclusion of Nielsen’s great Quintet just helps us appreciate the range of the New Sydney Wind Quintet’s artistry, which is compelling. This is a first-rate interpretation of the Danish composer’s finest piece of chamber music. Nielsen’s finale, a set of variations on his own hymn tune “My Jesus, make my heart to love thee,” is designed to showcase the individual members of the quintet and so is a perfect calling card for these skilled musicians from Down Under. Altogether, an excellent disc and one worth seeking out, which may pose something of a problem especially for collectors in America. Check out the quintet’s website: http://nswq.com.au.

—Lee Passarella

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