The French conductor, whose Daphnis is our Recording of the Month, explains how symphonic music serves the dance.
Do you remember your first encounter with the score of Daphnis et Chloé and your reaction at the time?
Yes, I remember precisely when I heard Daphnis et Chloé for the first time. I was a teenager, something like 13 years old. It was only the Suite No 2 with a recording by Charles Munch and I was very impressed and very moved by this music. I was really fascinated.
Where do you rank Daphnis et Chloé among the work of the Ballets Russes and among Ravel’s work as a composer?
When we look at the whole Ballets Russes production, the premieres that Diaghilev organised, Daphnis et Chloé may be the one the most attended, the most expected. It is nothing to do with an academic style but it is really a master ballet in the tradition of the French ballet. It is maybe musically one of the biggest French ballets ever written. So it is exceptionally big with amazing forces. For Ravel itself, it is with no doubt his big orchestral work – the longest and the most developed.
François-Xavier Roth rehearsing Ravel. Photo © Julien Mignot
What, if any, were Ravel’s influences or inspirations when writing Daphnis?
I think, in the tradition of French ballet music by composers like Rameau or Gluck, Ravel is inspired by this antique story. The simplicity of the story allows him to develop a very rich, versatile and contrasted music. He is, in terms of the music, not at all influenced by any composers. He writes this ballet himself using all of his power as a composer.
The ballet has been described as “symphonic” in style. What exactly does that mean for a listener?
This ballet is first of all a symphonic music – a music organised in all the different combinations that Ravel is master of. The symphonic music is really to serve the dance, and Daphnis is really a music to be danced all the time.
Does the ballet at all hearken back in style to either Greek drama or the pastoral idylls popular in the early Baroque?
There are references to the early baroque and there is no doubt that this aspect is in the culture of Ravel. We remember the piece Le Tombeau de Couperin, a piece very influenced by Couperin and Rameau. So Ravel is definitively influenced by the French tradition.
Period instruments are more commonly associated with music from the 18th and 19th centuries. What does Les Siècles bring to a work from 1921? And what are the main differences between the instruments of 1921 and those used today?
Using period instruments in Ravel’s music is very important, because as I often say, composers who experimented in the orchestra, like Ravel, Debussy, Berlioz, Beethoven or Rameau, these composers were attentive and took a special care to explore the limits of the instruments they knew. If you use these instruments, you can realise the exact way and the exact colours the composers wanted to obtain.
The difference between the instruments of today and the instruments of 1921 is huge. The winds for instance were completely different. We also have to remember that at that time Paris was the capital of wind instrument making! With period instruments, it is also much simpler to achieve balance between the sections, correct articulation and rhythmic energy. The overall colour tends more towards sweetness and intense sensuality.
Do you have a favourite moment or moments that you look forward to whenever you conduct the score?
No, there is no special moment. The dramaturgy of Daphnis is really well built and every new sequence, new tableau is very exciting itself. For sure, the Apothéose, the end of the ballet is something remarkable but I love all the passages of the work. One of my hits is also the small a cappella section. It is some of the purest music Ravel composed. When I conducted L’Enfant et les Sortilèges recently, I wondered why Ravel did not compose more for the choir. He is such a master in choral writing.
What other 20th-century works would you like Les Siècles to tackle?
There are many, many works that we are going to explore with Les Siècles. For sure, music that is expected of us – Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky – but also, with the culture of the orchestra, we are gonna spend much time on the Second Viennese school, because I think the orchestra can bring a new way of hearing, I hope, to this repertoire.
François-Xavier Roth’s recording of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in June 2017