Ravel: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Bolero, La Valse, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Alborada del Grazioso, Rapsodie espagnole.  Stephane Deneve, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD 93.305.

I’m not sure the world really needs more recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral music, given that we already have a plethora of fine recordings from the likes of Charles Dutoit (Decca), Jean Martinon (EMI), Andre Cluytens (EMI), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Mobile Fidelity, Vox), and Geoffrey Simon (CALA), among others. Nevertheless, it isn’t stopping Maestro Stephane Deneve and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from releasing this first disc in a proposed series of discs devoted to Ravel’s orchestral output. Fortunately, Deneve’s way around Ravel isn’t too shabby, so devoted collectors may want to take notice.

The album opens not with Ravel's ubiquitous Bolero, which comes last on the program, but with the slightly off-kilter La Valse. The composer described it as "...a form of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which mingled in my imagination with the impression of a fantastic and fatal whirlpool." Under Deneve's direction, La Valse begins softly and proceeds to go a little crazy in its own oddball way. Yet Deneve maintains a good control over the progressive flow of the piece, never letting it get too demonic.

Next, we find Le Tombeau de Couperin, a four-movement suite that Ravel intended as a homage to the French Baroque period. Deneve handles the music with elegance and style, all the while capturing their clearly twentieth-century impressionistic whimsy. If anything, Deneve is more successful here than with La Valse, perhaps with less competition to deal with.

Following Le Tombeau de Couperin comes Alborada del Gracioso ("Morning Song of the Jester"), originally an early piano piece. Deneve manages it with an appropriate playfulness, if perhaps a little less so than in the hands of the conductors I mentioned earlier. He also emphasizes the Spanish element effectively, if not always convincingly, and he directs the work's various tempo and rhythm changes smoothly.

Then we have the Rhapsodie espagnole, Ravel's first big success and the music next to Bolero by which most people probably know him. Deneve brings out its misty, enchanting lyricism nicely and again evokes the Spanish flavor with a fair amount of flair. The "Habanera" section sounds especially beguiling.

Finally, we come to Bolero, which by now must be ingrained in every person's mind from so much exposure. It generally lasts about fifteen to seventeen minutes, the recurring melody becoming more insistent as more and more instruments join in the fray. Deneve's account lasts just a few seconds over fifteen minutes, so no problem there, if a tad fast. There's no concern, anywhere, in fact, and the work sounds about as sinuous and seductive as any you'll find. However, whether it sounds as flamboyant and exciting as some rival versions, I will have to leave as a matter of taste. Certainly, this one will appeal to those listeners who insist on tonal purity above all, but until the very end it doesn't quite come to life and grab you by the throat as other renditions do. It's a bit more genteel than that. But I quibble; it will not disappoint most fans.

Producer Felix Fischer and sound engineer Martin Vogele recorded the album for Hanssler Classic at Liederhalle Stuttgart and Beethovensaal, Germany in 2012 and 2013. The sound spreads out nicely between the speakers, with no trace of a hole in the middle. It is also quite full, with an appealing ambient bloom making it appear even bigger. There is not much dimensionality to the sound, though, nor is there an abundance of transparency. Rather, it is a big, warm, spacious, moderately soft sound, given to loud outbursts of dynamic range, ample bass, and clean, clear highs.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:



  1. Greetings!
    I just found your blog, and have enjoyed reading your reviews of classical music. There's much to read here, and I'm going to do further exploring.

    We share a love for classical music, a love I've had for over 40 years. There is so much music to explore and discover that I find my interest is more intense now than it has ever been.

    I also write about classical music, not so much about specific recordings but the works themselves. My classical music blog is called Musical Musings and I invite you to take a look at it: http://muswrite.blogspot.com/

    Although I taught piano for a few years, I am otherwise a non-professional musician. I still play the piano and of course listen to (and write about) classical music. Years ago I used to read The American Record Guide so perhaps I've read some of your writings before, butthere's been a lot of water over the dam since then so I can't say for sure.

    Your blog's great!

    Alan Beggerow

  2. Thank you, Alan. I'll have a look at your blog in the morning. Good to share a common love.



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