The French composer, Maurice Ravel, is often described as an impressionist. I find his music more vivid than the haze of impressionism usually elicits, and the music on this CD is some of his most vivid and descriptive, not to mention in terms of popularity. Bolero, Rhapsodie Espagnole, Alborada del Gracioso, Une Barque sur l'ocean, and the complete Mother Goose Ballet are all among those vivid compositions.
The Mother Goose ballet has five scenes from various fairy tales: Dance of the Spinning Wheel, Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, Conversations of the Beauty and the Beast, Tom Thumb, Empress of the Pagodes, as well as a prelude, interlude, and a finale entitled Fairy Garden; all totaling 28 minutes. Each tableaux provides a vivid musical portrait of the fairy tale: the Dance of the Spinning Wheel has a constantly moving string undercurrent, while the Pavane for Sleeping Beauty has beautifully woven melodies in the winds, a lovely calm awaiting Prince Charming. Conversations of the Beauty and the Beast is a charming waltz where, perhaps, the girl is falling in love, while Tom Thumb has direct portrayals of bird trills and calls. The festive Empress of the Pagodes has an Asian pentatonic melody in a spirited dance, but it all culminates in the Fairy Garden, with a lush hymn set in 20th century fullness, bringing the work to close. Wonderfully colorful with lyric melodies for the woodwinds, charming dances, and special effects on the strings (glissandos, slides, harmonics, col legno, etc.) give the work a fantastical feel. Also on the disk is Une Barque sur l'ocean, an ultra Romantic depiction of the sea. Great swellings of waves occur in the music, first peacefully, with gently oscillating winds and strings, but eventually more aggressive. Very descriptive in nature, Ravel's colorful orchestral writing is an optimistic view of the sea, with occasional woodwind melodies insinuating melancholy, or loneliness at sea.
The other three works on the disk are all based in Spanish folk-rhythms and sequences. The seven minute Alborada del Gracioso is a dancing orchestral showpiece with a two-against-three feel, which erupts into a glorious exclamation before immediately calming down. Whirlwinds of harp, flutes, and clarinets, along with quickly repeated trumpet notes, castanets, and a lonely bassoon solo, make the work a tour de force. The 16-minute Rhapsodie Espagnole is in four movements (Prelude to the Night, Malaguena, Habanera, and Festival), and on the whole, a rather understated work of impressionism. The opening prelude has an unceasing, unresolved feeling, as well as a rhythmic displacement that lasts throughout. The Malaguena is a quiet, but snappy dance in 3, while the Habanera is a sluggish dance with a jerky feeling. The Festival finale is the most outgoing, and besides the Bolero, has the most extensive writing for brass on the CD. The famous Bolero, with its sassy melody and natural crescendo (by adding instruments to increase volume), is an orchestral standard. Made famous by its unrelentless rhythmic ostinato and catchy melody, the work includes unique orchestrations, including solos in extreme ranges and use of saxophones (tenor and soprano). The work brings the disk to a rousing close.
Pierre Boulez is a pre-eminent Claude Debussy interpreter, and his experience there is utilized successfully in this Ravel CD. Boulez follows the score intently, sometimes to a fault; he follows the extreme dynamic ranges and Ravel's articulation markings (sometimes making the listener have to adjust the volume in order to hear). Although the Berlin Philharmonic is an unusual choice for a French composer, with often needed delicate handling, they fare quite well, often setting a transparent quality, but thoroughly enjoying the raucous dance settings. Featuring some of Ravel's most vivid and descriptive music, and certainly famous works, this CD should satiate the average listener as a great introduction to Ravel, but the winning performance and 4-dimension DG digital sound should win over the rest. Good choice for these popular works. TT: 75.33