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: