RAVEL Ma mère l'Oye. Le Tombeau de Couperin (Roth)
François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles’ second Ravel disc for Harmonia Mundi is every bit as fine as their much-admired debut recording of Daphnis et Chloé for the label released last year (6/17). It has all the exemplary qualities we’ve come to expect from Roth and his orchestra: a painstaking reconstruction of period sound; interpretations of considerable cogency and subtlety that remain free from any trace of academicism; and playing of scrupulous precision and virtuosity that is never self-consciously showy.
Roth opts for the 1912 ballet version of Ma Mère l’Oye, an altogether trickier prospect for a conductor than the original suite, since the interludes Ravel composed to link the individual tales can seem discursive if not carefully handled. Here, however, one is struck by a remarkable sense of homogeneity, as if the performance were recorded in a single take, when in fact it was made over four days in three different venues. The transparent textures, with every shift in colour beautifully realised and balanced, are consistently beguiling, though Roth downplays the menacing undertow some have found in the score: Beauty’s Beast swaggers unthreateningly and Petit Poucet, lost in his forest, sounds less disconsolate than he sometimes does. But the magic is genuine throughout, above all in ‘Laideronette’, which is breathtaking in its delicacy, and the Sleeping Beauty’s pavane, where time really does seem to stand still.
In Le tombeau de Couperin, however, Roth is wonderfully alert to the emotional ambiguities of a work that both gazes back longingly to the 18th century and commemorates Ravel’s friends killed in action in the First World War. Careful balance between strings and woodwind at the start of the Forlane reminds us just how disorientating Ravel’s counterpoint is at this point, while the Menuet generates a sense of deep melancholy that the Rigaudon’s extrovert brilliance doesn’t quite dispel. Les Siècles’ oboist, Hélène Mourot, is rightly given an individual credit for the fluid beauty of her playing here, and is also heard to advantage in the early (1898) Shéhérazade overture, not to be confused with the later, more familiar song-cycle of the same name.
Ravel withdrew the score after the premiere, deeming it ‘poorly constructed’, which is untrue, though its dependence on thematic repetition and a certain sameness of mood make it fractionally too long for its own good. In a booklet note, however, Roth argues that the complexity of the scoring to some extent prefigures Daphnis and La valse, and makes his case for it in a richly detailed performance, conducted and played with tremendous élan and vigour.