RAVEL: “Orchestral Works 2” = Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit; The Tomb of Couperin; La Valse – Orch. Nat. de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray

RAVEL: “Orchestral Works 2” = Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit (orch. by Marius Constant); The Tomb of Couperin; La Valse – Orch. Nat. de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos Pure Audio Blu-ray NBD0034, 66:35 [11/19/13] *****:

Slatkin is not recognized as one of the great Ravel conductors, but he brings a detailed and refined orchestral styling to these selections, and they are recorded in the very best close orchestral sound with excellent lossless 96K/24-bit 5.1 surround as well as crystalline two-channel PCM stereo. The French players know these scores very well and do a terrific job of interpreting them. The brass and woodwinds shine in bringing across the Gallic charm of the composer.

I’d forgotten that Le tombeau de Couperin was basically a tribute to friends who had died in the First World War, and the Baroque setting of the pieces was sort of an afterthought. They don’t actually use any of Couperin’s keyboard pieces, but are created in his style. They show Ravel as straddler of different periods of music, all beautifully realized. His La Valse is the only selection which was originally created as an entirely orchestral work. Diaghilev had commission it for his ballet, and it is probably the epitome of deconstruction of the standard Strauss waltz—one of Ravel great masterpieces. This is not the most exciting performance of the work, but nevertheless is admirable.

While Ravel made orchestral versions of a number of his piano works, his unusual suite of three piano pieces based on poems of Bertrand, Gaspard de le nuit, was never transcribed for orchestra, partly because it is such an amazingly pianistic work to begin with that it almost defies transcription.  However, in 1990 Marius Constant, transcribed it, and it gives us quite a different view of this piano suite. It’s not nearly of the quality of Ravel’s own transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures an an Exhibition, for example, but still is very worth hearing. It is fortunate that nearly all of Ravel’s piano  music seems to work fairly well in orchestral garb, due to his amazing tone-painting abilities. The third and longest of the three pieces, Scarbo, becomes a fascinating orchestral tone painting of the other-worldly goblin.

I don’t find these audio-only Blu-rays any audible improvement over multichannel SACDs, but they are reaching a larger audience of users than the niche SACD format due to the greater number of Blu-ray decks out there, and their packaging certainly makes them stand out in a collection. (And also fail to fit on standard CD shelves.)

—John Sunier

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