Album review: Ravel feast from Sinfonia of London and John Wilson on Chandos

Over the past couple of years, the recordings and concert performances of Sinfonia of London and John Wilson have been lauded far and wide, and deservedly so. Launching their recording career on Chandos in 2019, a dazzling SACD account of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp (1947-52), was unveiled, followed by notable albums devoted to English and French music, alongside orchestral joyrides of Respighi and Dutilleux.

Primed by these extraordinary recordings, their latest endeavour, an eighty-four-minute(!) Maurice Ravel album, comes off as the finest in the series, thus far. Recorded at Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, the same venue that has housed the orchestra and conductor in their previous Chandos sessions, the gorgeous SACD presentation is a feast of sonority and minutiae detail, endowing the perfect sonic platform for Sinfonia of London and Wilson to shine.

In terms of repertoire, the new disc brings together six splendid orchestral works of Ravel, each of them rooted in dance. There are two ballet scores involved, Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911) and Bolero (1928), both given in their original stage guises, as published by Ravel Edition and Breitkopf und Härtel. Although devised for the concert hall, Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/1912) and La Valse (1919-20), in their turn, stem from the sonic ingredients of the Viennese Waltz as re-invented by Ravel.

To complete the album, Alborada del gracioso (1904-05/1918) and Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899/1910) are also included in the generous playlist. Out of the six orchestral works recorded here, four are piano originals, clad in dazzling instrumental guises by the composer.

The disc sets off with an enthralling rendition of La Valse, Ravel’s surreal choreographic poem for orchestra. A mist-shrouded re-imagination of mid-nineteenth-century Viennese ballroom, with its chandeliers casting light on a mixture of dreamscape and nightmare. On the opening page, we hear ghost-like rumour from divisi double-basses, out of which a kernel of a waltz begins to takes shape. The music grows in shape and sound, yielding to a glimmering orchestral tableau of dazzling seduction, with ominous undercurrents.

Upon each iteration, Ravel’s waltz sequence becomes increasingly destabilised, as sonic tensions mount, layer upon layer, until the its whirling machinery becomes derailed and the music blasts into self-annihilation on the gorgeously macabre final pages.

”It is dancing, whirling, nearly hallucinating ecstasy, a whirlwind that increasingly whips on and exhausts the dancers who allow themselves to be overwhelmed and swept away by the waltz”, as the composer himself put it in a 1922 De Telegaaf interview.

A performance of sensuous enchantment and morbid brawn, Wilson and the Sinfonia of London set Ravel’s score alight with colour and texture, while maintaining firm grasp of the overall sonic architecture and dramaturgy. Beautifully caught on microphones, myriad of astonishing instrumental detail is heard, woven into terrific folds of harmonic finesse.

A splendid change of mood and scenery takes place, as the playlist segues into the ravishing fairy-tale realm of Ma Mère l’Oye, one of Ravel’s most extraordinary scores. Begun as a series of tableaux for piano duet, written in 1908-10, the composer went on adapt the music into an orchestral ballet, adding a prelude to establish the mood as well as some brief interludes, or raccords as Ravel called them, to bridge the scenery together into continuous sonic narrative.

The present recording provides us with a disc premiere of the new Ravel Edition version of the full ballet score, based on thorough critical examination of the disparate source materials available. As it happened, the initial stage firsts for Ma Mère l’Oye, premiered in 1912 and revived in 1913, were performed in cut and paste materials, combining printed movements from the concert suite and handwritten parts conceived for the ballet. Although more than a hundred years have elapsed since its first performance, there has been no properly edited complete ballet score available, until now.

On the album, Wilson and his fabulous Sinfonia of London players put the new score in great use, drawing an absolutely bewitching performance out of it, one full of narrative magic and sonic enchantment. The tone is set in the sublime Prélude, with its delicate orchestral fabric awaken in the most refined sonorities. In the course of the ensuing series of five tabelaux, iconic fairy-tales come to life with picturesque acuteness and sensitivity, yielding to absorbing narrative and the reflective psychology within. Rounding of with an astoundingly beautiful account of the Apothéose, this is indeed Ma Mère l’Oye to remember and cherish.

With Wilson on the podium, the members of the Sinfonia of London appear as storytellers par excellence, embracing the fine-tuned details of Ravel’s sonic dramaturgy with all their craft and musicianship. A masterful account full of colour and evocative instrumental lines, their performance is pure aural joy.

Following the superlative Ma Mère l’Oye, the next track adopts more extroverted tone, as the players and Wilson treat their listeners with a boisterous take on Alborada del gracioso, Ravel’s ravishing orchestral adaptation of his piano original from Miroirs (1904-05). In the score, flamboyant outer sections frame a reflective middle section, notable for its bewitching solo bassoon part. Performed with mastery and sonic delight, Alborada del gracioso comes off wonderfully on the new SACD, resulting in an uplifting orchestral adventure, well served by the recording team.

The Spanish connection, one of the key threads running through Ravel’s music, resurfaces with Pavane pour une infante défunte, another refined orchestral reappearance of a piano original. Concerning its suggestive title, the composer made the following remark.  

”When I assembled the words of this title I had nothing more in mind than the pleasure of alliteration. One should not attach any more significance to this title than it has and avoid dramatising it. It is not a dirge for a recently deceased princess, but evokes a pavane that such a princess might once have danced at the court of Spain.”

In other words, the score’s inherent lightness should be taken as-is, without overemphasising (nor ignoring) its delicate wistfulness. Taking their cue from the composer, the Sinfonia of London and Wilson provide an appealingly translucent reading of the Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the score. 

The musical fabric of woodwinds, strings harps and two valveless horns, or cors simples, as indicated in the score, is unveiled with apt naturalness, combined with ever immaculately adjusted balances within the ensemble. While the recording may not quite achieve the unique glow of the classic rendition by The Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, this is compensated manifoldly by the pin-point clarity involved. 

Circling back to the Viennese Waltz, the alluring performance of Valses nobles et sentimentales weaves together several traits from the music heard before it; a sequence of stylised waltzes, originally written for piano and subsequently turned into an orchestral ballet, under the title of Adelaïde, ou le langage des fleurs.  

While the composer’s chosen title pays homage to Schubert, the eight-movement score is quintessentially Ravelian. The musical manifestations of nobility and sentimentality are interwoven throughout, with each of the waltzes encompassing multi-layered characterisations of different aspects on the very essence of the Viennese Waltz. 

Each of the eight waltzes opens into a specific miniature realm of texture and whirl, some with vivid acuteness other with distanced memory. Performed with sweeping articulation and inspired rhythmic impetus, Valses nobles et sentimentales builds up to another dream-sequence rooted in astounding sonorous invention.  

The album closes with its absolute treat, as the orchestra and Wilson deliver their spectacular sonic feast on Bolero. Written as one-act ballet for Ida Rubinstein, Bolero comes off, paradoxically, as the most straightforward and also the most thoroughly enigmatic score Ravel ever penned.

”It represents an experience in a very special and limited way, and it must be considered as such, without trying to achieve more or something it isn’t meant for. [T]he work I had composed was to last seventeen minutes and consisted entirely of some ”orchestral material without music” – with a long, very progressive crescendo. There are no contrasts and nearly no invention, apart from the plan and the way has to be played”, the composer described his score in an interview published by The Daily Telegraph in 1931.

Originally conceived as a glorious one-off by Ravel, Bolero went forth to become one of the most iconic scores of the 20th century. Although entirely built upon reiterations of a two-pert quasi Arab-Spanish melody, yielding to an enthrallingly prolonged crescendo, followed by a sudden modulation and an abrupt cutoff, Bolero takes a firm hold on its listener, as its sonorities travel throughout the orchestra, first from one solo instrument to another, then recurring in mixed timbres of the most sensual kind.

Scored for an orchestra of triple winds and brass, apart from four horns, three saxophones, harp, celesta, timpani, percussion and strings, the sonic impetus for Bolero is laid out by an incessant snare drum pattern, realised here according to Ravel’s original setup involving the rhythmic pattern divided between two antiphonally placed instruments. A small detail on the page, perhaps, the dialogue between the two players actually makes a huge difference acoustically, providing the orchestral fabric with some splendid, dead-pan dramaturgy.

As for the rest of the score, Wilson and the Sinfonia of London seem to find an ideal balance between Ravel’s unique mix of matter-of-factness and sensuality as they lay down the sequential sonorities with intoxicating buoyancy and fine-tuned instrumental detail. At the core of the performance, there is a sweeping sense of float, which shuns away from all the numbing heavy-handedness all-too-often heard in less sensitive readings of the score. There is a wealth of sonorous detail found in each and every instrumental line, as the members of the Sinfonia of London deliver a performance of a lifetime under Wilson.

With added colour from oboe d’amore and the saxophones, not forgetting the notable contributions from the percussion section, the orchestra embraces Ravel’s instrumental mastery with utmost dedication and finesse, resulting in an absolutely unforgettable performance; one to cast a spell more powerful upon each listening session, which will be manifold in number.

An absolutely luminous album altogether, the Ravel disc is to be recommended with all the praise and joyful enthusiasm. Hopefully there will be further volumes of the composer’s music recorded by these wonderful musicians in a not-too-distant future. I, for one, would love to see what they would make of, let’s say, the new Breitkopf edition of Daphnis and Chloé (1909-12) or the Urtext scores of the piano concertos, as published by Bärenreiter and Ravel Edition. In any case, one looks forward to the forthcoming sonic feasts of the Sinfonia of London and Wilson with the most eager anticipation.

Sinfonia of London

John Wilson, conductor

Maurice Ravel: La Valse (1919-20) – Poème chorégraphique pour orchestre

Maurice Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911) – Ballet en cinq tableaux et une apothéose

Maurice Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (1904-05/1918) pour orchestre

Maurice Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899/1910) pour petit orchestre

Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/1912) pour orchestre

Maurice Ravel: Bolero (1928) – Ballet en I Acte

Recorded at Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London 9 January 2020 (Pavane) and 30 August – 1 September 2021 (other works)

Chandos Records CHSA 5280 (2022), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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