Ravel: Sheherazade (CD review)

Also, Debussy: La damoiselle ellue; Britten:  Les illuminations. Sylvia McNair; Susan Graham; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Philips 289 446 682-2.

The three song cycles assembled on this 1999 Philips release are voluptuous and sensitive, even if the musical setting for Britten's collection of short poems is in a somewhat less ethereal world than the other two.

The highlight, as one might expect from its greater popularity, is the opening composition, Maurice Ravel's Sheherazade. Inspired by the impressionism of Debussy, Ravel's Sheherazade inhabits a far different landscape than Rimsky-Korsakov's earlier, more literal series of tone poems. The Ravel is all shapes and shadows and sinuous lines.

Debussy's early piece La damoiselle ellue is likewise more figuratively evocative than literal. It is based on the verses of British poet and illustrator Dante Gabriel Rossetti describing his painting of "The Blessed Damozel," and adds to the mix a chorus with soprano narration. In some ways it is more lyrical than the Ravel and equally atmospheric.

Sylvia McNair
English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten's Les illuminations is the newer of the three works, the composer having completed it in 1939, based on poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is the most eclectic of the written compositions represented here, and, appropriately, the musical accompaniment is the most varied, from serene and seductive to almost raucous by turns. To suggest that all of this music is quite sensuous and sexual in nature would be an understatement.

American opera and Broadway soprano Sylvia McNair sings the title roles expressively yet without fuss. They are reasonably straightforward renderings that allow the songs to breath in their own right. Some listeners may prefer more dramatic, perhaps even more sensitive, readings, but no other interpretation, I'm sure, captures the simple beauty of the poetry any better than these. Maestro Seiji Ozawa's accompaniment, likewise, is unobtrusive, serving only to reinforce the mood and never drawing attention to itself, while the Boston Symphony play with a velvety smoothness.

The Philips sound is slightly dark, with Ms. McNair clearly at stage front. There is good orchestral depth, a sometimes soft high end, and little need for extended dynamic impact or a sweeping frequency range. The recording does not sparkle, but it doesn't need to. The singing and phrasing sparkle enough.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment

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.

Contact Information

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa