Ravel (L')Enfant et les sortilèges
A violinist and cellist, rehearsing Ravel’s Duo Sonata, complained to the composer how hard it was to play. ‘Good’, said he, ‘then I shan’t be assassinated by amateurs.’ His two operas have been, one might say, generally lucky in recordings. Except that it’s not so much luck as common sense: both are Mozartian in the demands they make on accuracy of ensemble, even before one has got to the stage of interpretation, and anything less than 100 per cent on this front means the record simply won’t last. Amateurs need not apply.
For these two recordings Maag was wise enough to choose mainly French singers. In both operas Ravel, for much of the time, stayed close to the spoken word, on the lines he had explored in 1907 in his song cycle Histoires naturelles, and non-French singers mostly lack the feeling for the rhythm of the syllables, even where their pronunciation is unexceptionable. Throughout the two operas on these discs, everything is in place and often a good deal more than that. Mady Mesplé is predictably superb in L’enfant as The Fire and The Princess, with astounding accuracy in her runs as the former, as is Michel Sénéchal, in the role of the Old Man which he had sung on Lorin Maazel’s DG set (3/89) recorded two years earlier. In truth, vocally there’s not a weak link anywhere. If Andrée Aubery Luchini’s Concepcion in L’heure espagnole is a trifle approximate in her pitching at times, that’s more than made up for by her spirited delivery.
In an ideal world, free of economic constraints, I could happily recommend both discs and their listed comparisons. And yet… The Rosenthal and Bour versions, dating as they do from 1944 and 1947 respectively, have a je ne sais quoi, almost a perfume, that hits the spot in a way the others don’t quite. The sound of the Rosenthal is not marvellous, but Roger Bourdin gives Ramiro a touching naivety and vulnerability, where Pierre Mollet for Maag goes rather more for his rugged hunkiness. I find Bourdin’s way appealing – although you could argue that it depends on how desperate you think Concepcion is.
There is, too, a very slight tendency to hunkiness in Maag’s interpretations of both operas. Quite frequently I felt things were too loud. And he misses some of Ravel’s almost obsessive changes of tempo: for instance, the rallentando over Don Inigo’s comment on how important it is that husbands should get out of the house and enjoy ‘une occupation régulière et périodique’. There needs to be time for the audience to laugh here.
I prefer to pass over Maag’s renderings of the Valses nobles and Ma mère l’oye, for which I would guess rehearsal time had been insufficient: ensemble and balance are too often awry and some of the string playing, in the sixth Valse noble above all, is scratchy. But both operas had obviously been rehearsed and rehearsed, and the last page of L’enfant is deeply moving, with a wonderfully executed crescendo up to the chorus’s final ‘sage’, confirming the child’s arrival at a state of grace.