Ravel called his glittering score to Daphnis et Chloé a ‘Symphonie choreographique’: essentially a ‘symphony with dance’, the perfect description for a work of such majesty, where the music really is centre-stage. The score is usually segmented into three suites for concert performance, making a hearing of the full version all too rare a treat. Thankfully François-Xavier Roth with period instrument orchestra Les Siècles and Ensemble Aedes deliver the full ballet on this recent release with Harmonia Mundi, with the most stunning results.
The exact date of inception of Daphnis et Chloé is somewhat disputed, but the original commission came from Diaghilev, for the prestigious Ballets Russes. The composition was fraught with challenges, mainly due to creative differences between Ravel and the choreographer, Michel Fokine. After numerous revisions and a delayed premiere, the ballet finally opened in June 1912, almost a year before Parisian audiences would be scandalised by the riot over Stravinsky’s vicious Rite.
Underscoring the ancient Greek tale of a pastoral romance between a shepherd and shepherdess, Ravel’s music is languorous and enchanting, shimmering with lush orchestral colour, and worlds away from Stravinsky’s pulsating nightmare. The beginning and third part are mostly relaxed, dreamy episodes, framing the dramatic central part, in which Chloé is abducted by pirates and eventually released through the intervention of the nature god Pan. The celebration in the form of a riotous bacchanal makes for a truly ecstatic finale.
There’s a real dynamism palpable throughout this recording, and the orchestra and chorus – the largest ensemble employed in any of Ravel’s works – achieve a nuanced sound, capturing
all of the sultry magic in this vivid score. Les Siècles’ tonal balance and shaping are excellent, brilliantly managed under Roth’s expert hands. Ensemble Aedes as the wordless chorus (often omitted from the suites) adds weight and emotional drive to the music, and in certain moments conjures the most hauntingly beautiful atmospheres. Marion Ralincourt’s flute solos are light, finely shaded and effortlessly graceful.
A unique feature of this disc is the use of period instruments. Les Siècles offers a fascinating approach, in a carefully researched and executed performance that sounds authentic, yet still entirely fresh. The use of gut strings, wind instruments of unusual sizes, and original percussion, lends the music at times an endearing fragility, and also a powerful rawness. The opening to the third part in particular is sublime for the fascinating colours that bubble forth from Roth’s reading.