For many a concertgoer Rapsodie Espagnole is an evocative musical postcard, an atmospheric curtain-raiser for weightier symphonic spectaculars – but listen closely and you may recognise a masterwork that, by its understatement and dynamic reticence, hides its light under a bushel. Ravel’s genius as an orchestrator is most obvious in the extravagances of Daphnis et Chloe or La Valse but here it is distilled into purest essence.
Take a look at the score’s opening pages for a lesson in economy; so few notes but so much atmosphere, yet the two piano version casts nearly as potent a spell so the expression is intrinsic to the thematic material and harmonies and not just a matter of sonority and timbre. There is an affinity with Britten’s aesthetic.
Roth and the LSO give a reading of such remarkable clarity that it might be deemed too easy for a dictation class. Others may offer similarly diaphanous textures but the LSO are in another league with their characteristic lean sonority and laser-sharp focus at the lowest dynamic level, playing of such sensitivity and subtle nuance that negates their principal-guest maestro’s usual advocacy for period instruments.
Every chord and mixture is balanced for maximum lucidity; 3’20” into Prélude à la Nuit, two bassoons against three muted violins trilling and another arpeggiating harmonics – a magical moment clarified. Tempo relationships and transitions are perfectly judged, logical and organic – nothing jars and all is free of affectation. While I might like a more unbuttoned conclusion to Feria, I respect the integrity and balance of Roth’s master plan.
My opening rumination on the Ravel’s status also applies to Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune and La Mer, despite them earning more intellectual brownie points; both regarded as seminal works for the 20th-century’s orchestral vocabulary. Roth’s earlier Prélude with Les Siècles was more forthright and characterful, although that could be the meatier recording. Here, despite the LSO’s hyper-refined playing, the reticence verges on the pallid. Les Siècles earlier La Mer from 2013 was a bit rough at the edges (I would so like to hear a remake and was surprised they didn’t do so for Harmonia Mundi’s Centenary Edition).
Here again the LSO chamber-alert playing uncovers revelatory details without mannered exaggeration. Roth’s tempi verge on brisk but never sound rushed and his grip is firm but malleable – the “sunburst” coda of De l’Aube à Midi sur la Mer swells with just enough breadth and weight to not overwhelm what has gone before. Jeux de Vagues is fleet yet supple with every ripple and spray of spume glinting in sparkling light but transcending the pictorial – a mercurial scherzoof startling originality (little wonder the cloth-eared critics of 1905 were baffled!)
Roth’s scrupulous observation of the score’s dynamic markings keeps Dialogue du Vent et de la Mer on a straight and narrow course but some may crave more weight and splendour. That period of calm at 4’05” is rather special – the high harmonic a distant gleam of sunlight on a grey sea rather than a sudden onset of tinnitus. Considering Roth’s archaeological bent, I’m surprised he doesn’t include the original fanfares at 6’26”. The story goes that Debussy only scrubbed them when somebody pointed out their resemblance to the 1898 pop song Ciribiribin!
So, while there is plenty to admire here, curmudgeonly moi has to admit I can only admire not love. My caveat; the LSO’s top-heavy sonority compounded by the transparent but sterile and bass-light recording downplays the elemental grandeur of La Mer and the Mediterranean heat-haze languor of the Faun’s reverie and Ravel’s Spain.
Composer: Debussy, Ravel
Works: La Mer, Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune , Rapsodie Espagnole
Performers: London Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth
Label: LSO LSO0821 (SACD)