Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (Suite No. 2)

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (Suite No. 2), Pavane pour une infante défunte, La Valse, Ma Mère l’Oye, Bolèro

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi [Telarc SACD-60601].


    May 2004                                                                                             Russell Lichter


I spent most of last night with this hybrid SACD in a state of deep enjoyment and excitement. Between times, I thought of how I was going to go about writing this review. Did I want to listen to other versions of La Valse, Pavane, Ma Mère l’Oye, and Bolèro (I have several), make general and specific comparisons, have my attention caught by the cadence and tempo of a particular passage and swap CDs back and forth, while a grasped for the right words? Or did I want to write about my immediate experience, without reference to what other conductors and orchestras may have done? I’ve opted for the latter approach. 

Recordings of Ravel’s orchestral music are plentiful. This is easy to understand: in terms of sheer beauty and evocative magic, it doesn’t get any better. All of the selections on this disc are well known, and I have heard them countless times. There is always the danger, in a case like this, of approaching the performance with a lack of freshness and openness. I needn’t have concerned myself. The more I listened to this disc, the more impressed I was. This is a disc that leaves no room for doubt.

Like all the Telarc hybrids I’ve heard recently, the sound quality is excellent, very dynamic with an excellent sound stage. But what really sets this disc apart is the music making by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Järvi began his studies in Estonia and came to the USA when he was 17. One critic drew attention to the fact that Järvi studied with Leonard Bernstein, and that Järvi’s conducting showed the “furious intensity and bravura panache” of his teacher. I agree. When Bernstein was on the money, he was hellfire with an orchestra. And Järvi’s handling of the CSO is quite extraordinary in its precision and excitement. It’s as if everything is working so perfectly that a kind of sublime ease emerges, the conductor’s hand directs without any need for iron control. He brings the orchestra to the point where it is the music itself that directs their playing, if that makes any sense.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in La ValseDaphnis et Chloé, Ma Mère l’Oye, all the music on this disc is simply gorgeous and haunting, but to me La Valse is the centerpiece of the album. I’ve heard lots of performances of this music, which is nearly as ubiquitous as the Pavane, but I have never heard a performance that so well captures the ominous ambiguity, the undercurrent of upheaval, the ironic gaiety, the frenzy of Ravel’s waltz with such balance, clarity and ease. I have always favored the original piano versions over Ravel’s sumptuous orchestrations, without exception, but Paavo Järvi’s rendering has changed my mind about La Valse. This is simply the finest La Valse I have ever heard.

Ravel’s music always has a powerful evocative quality for me, but the first time I listened to La Valse I saw in my mind’s eye a furious choreography, not at all waltz-like, only to read in the notes afterward that Ravel composed La Valse at the behest of Diaghilev. Diaghilev recognized it for the masterpiece it surely is, but said “…it is not a ballet…only the portrait of a ballet.” Ida Rubinstein, who had also choreographed Bolero, in 1928, first choreographed it ten years later, in 1930. Ravel said of La Valse, “I feel that this work is a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.”

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