Ravel, L'Heure Espagnole

L’Heure Espagnole
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Asher Fisch
BR Klassik 900317

Ravel’s exquisite miniature, L’Heure Espagnole, has often come a poor second in the catalogue to the catchier L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with which it is occasionally shackled, so it’s nice to see a label taking a punt on a solo recording. Unlike its more in-your-face stablemate, L’Heure is a slower simmer but, like much of Ravel, it repays multiple listenings. Devoid of arias as such, its sassy libretto is finely spun over typically ravishing orchestrations, requiring a listener’s immersion in the music just as much as the words.

The plot is simple: Concepción, the highly-sexed wife of the town clockmaker, juggles a pair of lovers while her husband is out, eventually hiding them inside clocks while she beds a muscular muleteer. Double entendres abound on the inner workings of timepieces (ie. Concepción) and the wayward nature of pendulums (er, you guessed it), though it’s all in the best possible taste.

This superbly detailed reading from the Munich Radio Orchestra is helmed by West Australian Symphony Orchestra Principal Conductor Asher Fisch, who here proves as skilled a hand with the French Impressionists as he is with the German Romantics. The score shimmers and sashays, whether representing Torquemada’s ticking clocks or the lazy heat of a sultry Spanish afternoon. Fisch proves especially adept at teasing out the little musical witticisms like Ravel’s priapic glissandi that seem to have a mind of their own.

The cast are all first rate, as nimble with the text as they are on the money with the music. Gaëlle Arquez is sexy and smart as the unfaithful wife, with a lovely, rich yet never overbearing soprano. Mathias Vidal has that classic French tenor elegance as her cuckolded husband, with Julien Behr a knockout as the puffed up poet Gonzalve and Lionel Lhote suitably stolid as the fat banker who gets wedged in a grandfather clock. Alexandre Duhamel is the epitome of a vocal stud as the well-endowed muleteer. The sound, taken from a live performance, is tremendously convincing and it all ends with a fizzing romp through Chabrier’s España.