François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles Ravel Ma mère l'Oye, coupled with Le Tombeau de Couperin with Shéhérazade between them, latest in Les Siècles's Ravel series for Harmonia Mundi which began with their Daphnis et Chloé, so exquisitely beautiful that it remains by my desk for frequent listening. This new disc focuses on two main works initially published for piano, but conceived with potential for orchestra. "To orchestrate, for Ravel" said Emile Vuillermoz, was to "exploit the colour of the istruments , to atch their timbres, to vary and nuance them down to the slightest detail, without ever losing sight of the overall balance". Ideal for Roth and Les Siècles whose forte is clarity and exqusite clarity, clean jewel-like sparkle enlivened by a feel for the passionate imagination that inspired the composer. Ma mère l'Oye may have been written for children, but its magic is so strong that adults. too, can be drawn under its spell. With Roth and Les Siècles you don't get "kid stuff". Indeed, the more sophisticated the players, and the more sensitive the listener, the stronger the sense of enchantment.
This performance of the full 1912 ballet version of Ma mère l'Oye is almost too exquisite to be earthbound, though it bristles with energy. The first notes of the Prelude suggest the pipes of Pan, the switrl of flutes, the movement of some mysterious creature. Winds blow, and dizzying strings - spinning wheels - hypnotize us into reverie so we can dream, like the Beauty, sleep in the forest. More shivers and shimmerings, as the Beauty awakes to meet the Beast. the woodwinds sing, and the lower strings growl : suggesting the Beast whose form is brutish but his soul refined. In this mysterious realm (tender strings) lives too Le petit Poucet who is small and frail (birdlike woodwinds) but outsmarts the Ogre. Magical harps, tremulous woodwinds evoke the even more exotic kingdom of Laideronette. Percussion in "oriental" patterns, as angular as the shape of pagodas, building up to elegant, though wistful melody. Laideronette and her serpent friend are under a spell. Roth and Les Siècles alternate slow and more agitated passages enhancing the flow. The Apothéose, in the jardin féerique is delicate, yet magnificent.
Thus to Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1898). Although this was to have been part of an opera, Roth and Les Siècles bring out the tightness of its structure, demonstrating the strength of its design, as purposeful as a ballet. Though Stravinsky would not have known it (it remained unpublished until 1975), this performance is so well-defined that the piece feels like a prototype for something Diaghilev might have considered for the Ballets Russe.
Roth values the importance of structure in French repertoire, evolving as it did from the baroque, where elaborations are built upon firm, disciplined foundations influenced by dance and formal patterns. Thus Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, in his four movement orchestration, premiered in 1920. Thus the piece is as much an hommage to French style as a a series of memorials to Ravel's friends who died in the 1914-1918 war. A vivacious Prélude, with the oboe as lithe and athletic as a creature of the forest (an unexpected link to Ma mère l'Oye). The dance origins of the Forlane are even more evident , a forlane being a folk dance form from Italy which Couperin adapted. Hence the sprightliness, every "step" in the music sharply articulated and vibrant. The Minuet is more formal but equally well presented. This is what period inspired performance means, not instruments per se but an understanding of repertoire itself. The Rigaudon here is particularly impressive, combining elegance with boisterousness, and a tinge of sadness. Oboe and strings interact, two voices entwining like partners in a dance, or the two brothers Ravel knew, who went cheerfully to war and were promptly killed, by the same shell.