Ravel: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Also, Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony. Seattle Symphony Media SSM1002.

Ludovic Morlot took over the conductorship of Seattle Symphony in 2011 after a long tenure by Gerard Schwarz. By all indications, Maestro Morlot is continuing the success the symphony has enjoyed over the years since its inception in 1903. On the present program, Morlot presents several short works by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), followed by the Symphony No. 3 "Organ" by fellow French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).

First up is Ravel's Alborada del gracioso ("Song of a Clown"), written originally for piano 1905 and transcribed by the composer for orchestra in 1918. Morlot provides a good deal of atmosphere in the piece, drawing out Ravel's sumptuous lines and colorful Spanish flavor. He allows the music to become appropriately lively as the it moves along. It's nicely done.

Next is Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte ("Music for a dead princess"), also composed originally for piano (1899) but transcribed by the composer for orchestra in 1910. Ravel explained that he did not intend the Pavane as a mournful funeral march, despite its title, but as a refined and stately court dance, such music as a Spanish princess might have danced to. Therefore, Morlot plays it accordingly, not too slow and not too sentimental but with a simple elegance.

After that is Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, which the composer wrote for orchestra in 1908, his first such piece. The music develops in four descriptive movements: a "Prelude to Night," a traditional Malaguena," a popular "Habanera," and a concluding "Feria" or "festival." Here, Morlot creates an befitting sense of place and being, evoking the Spanish flavor of the work in each movement without overdoing his enthusiasm. All four sections come off with an emotional sophistication and a quiet imagination, with a special nod to the festive ending.

As the concluding item on the program, Morlot gives us Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony, which the composer finished in 1886 and which has been showing off church and concert-hall pipe organs ever since. Of course, it isn't really an "organ symphony" at all, as it features the organ in only two of its four movements; but close enough.

While I found almost everything about Morlot's handling of the Ravel pieces to my liking, I can't say quite the same thing about his interpretation of the Saint-Saens. The music never seems to get off the ground, remaining a mite too prosaic for my taste, at least compared to the conductors I favor: Charles Munch (RCA or JVC), Jean Martinon (EMI), Geoffrey Simon (Cala), and, best of all, Louis Fremaux (EMI or Klavier). Morlot, unfortunately, never appears to generate the same kind of energy, mood, tone, or excitement as these other musicians, nor does the recording produce the kind of bass needed to remind us of the organ's presence, even with the volume cranked up.

Dmitriy Lipay produced, engineered, and edited the album, recorded live in concert at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington in September 2013. First, a word about that "live in concert" business: Like many symphony orchestras these days, Seattle is doing their recording in-house, through their own record label and, I assume to further cut costs, live. This means that not only have they decided to record fairly close up to minimize audience noise but that one almost always senses the audience's presence. Worse, at the end of several pieces (the first and final Ravel pieces and the Saint-Saens) the audience erupts into applause, something I find quite disturbing, distracting me from my appreciation of the music. Obviously, the engineer left the applause in place to further simulate the live experience, and I realize that many home listeners enjoy this part of the show. I don't.

Anyway, the sound obtained is, as I say, a little close, certainly detailed, but somewhat hard and thin, too. There is good depth to the orchestra, and an admirably transparent midrange, with plenty of air around the instruments. There is also a distinct lack of warmth about the proceedings, though, with a slightly bright edge to the sound. Perhaps a tad more upper bass warmth would have helped, as well as more deep bass (especially in the Saint-Saens).


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

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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa