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Reviews

22 Nov 2018

Ravel’s Magical Glimpses into the World of Children

This is the fifth CD in a series devoted to Ravel’s orchestral works.

Ravel: L’enfant et les sortilèges; Debussy: Ma Mère l’Oye (five pieces)

Camille Poul (Child), Annick Massis (Fire, Princess, Nightingale), Maïlys de Villoutreys (Shepherdess, Bat, Owl), Marie Marall (Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly), Julie Pasturaud (Small Upholstered Seat, Shepherd, Female Cat, Squirrel), François Piolino (English Teapot, Little Old Man, Tree-Frog), Marc Barrard (Grandfather Clock, Male Cat), Paul Gay (Large Wooden-Armed Chair, A Tree), Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, SWR Vocal Ensemble, Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe, conducted by Stéphane Denève

SWR Music 19033—62 minutes

 

I loved vol. 4, whose main work was Ravel’s first opera, L’heure espagnole. Conductor Denève has, in the meantime, has become an ever-more-prominent figure on the world scene: during the 2019-20 season he will become music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, after some years as Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart orchestra heard here, as Music Director of the Brussels Philharmonic, and as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Denève has an interest in exploring new and forgotten repertoire: he recorded operas by Dukas and Prokofieff, as well as numerous works by Roussel.

The longer of the two works on this CD is the second of Ravel’s two operas (both of which are in a single act lasting less than an hour). Its title, impossible to translate, means something like “The Child and the Magical Things that Start to Happen to Him.” The opera consists of a series of very short scenes, in which a young boy, unnamed, refuses to do his schoolwork, taunts animals, breaks household objects, rips illustrated characters out of the wallpaper and his storybook, gets chastised by Mommy, then (I am interpreting a bit from this point on) falls asleep and dreams of the various objects, animals, and illustrated characters that he has mistreated in his waking life. They sing and dance and accuse, and he begins to understand. Finally, he binds (or dreams that he binds) the wounds of the squirrel that he has injured and calls out to his Mommy. Animals of the fields, concerned, take up his powerful cry, and the child, apparently now back from dreams, turns toward his mother and stretches out his arms.

The verses, written by the popular fiction-writer Colette, are inventive and full of subtle humor, mystery, and touches of violence—as well as much imitation of animal noises plus some pidgin English and Chinese. Ravel’s music is enchanting beyond description: a kaleidoscopic survey of musical styles, from sacred-choral to cheeky foxtrot and Piaf-like cabaret waltz (several years before Piaf began her career). L’enfant et les sortilèges is hard to stage, both for dramaturgical reasons and for musical ones—especially in a large hall, in which the frequent quick vocal patter and much of the orchestral tracery can get lost. But it is a delight to listen to on CD.

There have been numerous much-admired recordings: I join other critics in recommending the earliest one (1947, conducted by Ernest Bour) and the modern versions conducted by, most notably, Maazel, Previn, Jordan, and Rattle. (Ansermet’s recording, though somewhat uneven, also has splendid assets.) To these can now be added the fine rendering by Denève and the Stuttgart Orchestra, recorded in 2015. The vocal soloists are all native French-speakers, which helps enormously, especially when the text has to be spit out quickly (e.g., by the tenor who plays “The Little Old Man”: this character is the embodiment of the rules of arithmetic that the boy has refused to learn). They all sing with firm tone and with little or no wobble. The best-known of the singers, Annick Massis, has performed leading operatic roles (e.g., Lucia and Violetta) in major houses. In my aforementioned review of Denève’s vol. 4, I admired Paul Gay’s performance of the role of Don Iñigo Gomez.

The two participating choruses handle the French text beautifully. The innocent quality of the Karlsruhe Youth Chorus adds immeasurably to the final minutes of the work. The orchestral playing ravishes the ear.

Throughout the opera, the recorded quality is balanced and true, inviting you to listen attentively and rewarding you for doing so. The music flows with a natural lilt and lift. I wouldn’t want a single detail to be different, though some things are of course done differently on other recordings and are no less convincing there. (Late update: yet another first-rate recording of the opera has just been released, conducted by Mikko Franck: see the review here.)

The five “Mother Goose” pieces that complete the CD were recorded in the same hall (the Beethoven-Saal of Stuttgart’s Liederhalle) during a 2013 concert rather than under studio conditions. The sonics here, too, are remarkably detailed. The audience members are as quiet as church mice and, I suspect, deep in concentration—that’s how engaging the music-making is. They applaud vociferously at the end. A few quick wind passages are not perfectly rendered, but the advantages of a live performance here outweigh the small disadvantages, revealing how fine the SWR Orchestra is “in real time,” at least when led by the man who was their Chief Conductor for seven years (2005-12).

On the outside of the box, the title of this orchestral work is. astonishingly, mistranslated into German as Meine Mutter, die Gans , i.e., “My Mother, the Goose”! Fortunately, the English translation of the informative booklet essay is well handled, except that, in the cast list for the opera, it leaves Bergère untranslated. The word does not, here, mean a shepherdess (as some might assume) but a small upholstered armchair or loveseat. (As I said, furniture sings in this opera—long before a certain Disney movie.)

The booklet includes no libretto for the opera. An imaginatively updated singing translation in English is here.

How lucky the folks in St. Louis are going to be to have a conductor with such a fine sense of atmosphere, pacing, and color!

Ralph P. Locke


The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.

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