Ravel: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Jean Martinon, Orchestre de Paris. EMI 50999 5 00892 2 (3-disc set).

Jean Martinon made these EMI analogue recordings of the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1974, and I remember critics received them well. However, they were rather quickly eclipsed a few years later by the first of Charles Dutoit's Decca digital releases. Dutoit and his Montreal orchestra were certainly very good, but the popularity of their recordings might have had as much to do with their then-new digital processing as anything else. So, not to take anything away from Dutoit, but I'd say Martinon got a bit shortchanged on the deal. Anyway, it's good to have Martinon's set of Ravel orchestral works back in the catalogue at so reasonable a price. You can hardly fault the performances or the sound.

Indeed, when you listen to these performances and then compare them side by side with Dutoit's, you notice that Dutoit is often the more matter-of-fact conductor. Martinon's interpretations are frequently the more voluptuous, the more emotional, the more sweetly romantic. You can hear this from the outset with Bolero, that fifteen-minute sustained pulse of a work. It has never sounded more sensuous than under Martinon. Then there is the Rapsodie espagnole, never more colorful; La Valse, never more graceful or menacing; Ma mere l'Oye, never more beautiful or unassuming; La Tombeau de Couperin, never more charming or more memorable; and the Valses nobles et sentimentales, never more invigorating or more strangely melancholy. And so on. About the only piece I found slightly wanting was Martinon's version of the complete Daphnis et Chloe ballet, which sounds a bit underpowered to my ears, at least compared to Dutoit (Decca) or Monteux (Decca).

Yes, the Dutoit digital recordings are a touch clearer, better defined, than the Martinon analogue ones, and yet the faintly rounder, warmer sounds of the Orchestre de Paris seem a perfect fit for Ravel's generally impressionistic music. I liked the stereo spread of the EMI recordings and their attractive sense of ambience and depth in the orchestra. Then, too, taken away from the direct comparison with the Dutoit offerings, the Martinon discs sound totally scrumptious, so what's not to like? EMI was in a golden era of recording in the 1970s, and this set from Martinon is near the top of their class.

Dare I say it? This may be the best Ravel set currently before the public, even after all these years.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa