Ravel / Daphnis et Chloé / Monteux / LSO – Reviewed in 2012

More of the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Daphnis et Chloé / Monteux / LSO

xxxxx

A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.  

Nearly White Hot Stamper sound on this superb London Blueback pressing make it quite possibly the best complete Daphnis et Chloe we have ever heard.

Both sides here are BIG, with the space and depth of the wonderful hall that the LSO perform in. From my research it appears that John Culshaw may have produced the album, which surely accounts for the huge size and space, not to mention quality, of the recording. The sound is dynamic and tonally correct throughout. Without more copies on hand we feel it’s best to hold back half a plus on the sonic grade. That said, it’s clearly the best Daphnis et Chloe we’ve ever heard.

Please note that we should, but often don’t, make a vitally important distinction between two words we tend to use interchangeably. There is a difference between the sound of records that we’ve played and the sound that we’ve heard. The stereo, the listening room, our cleaning technologies and who knows what else are all undergoing constant changes. This means that we may have played a better pressing in the past but couldn’t hear it sound as good as it would now. The regular improvements we make in all areas of playback make sonic comparisons over time all but impossible.

We had a wonderful copy of this work on RCA with Munch in 2011. If we could clean it and play it the way we can now, who’s to say how good it would sound head to head with this London? We sure can’t.

Side One

A++ to A+++ or better. Rich textured strings and clear brass. Not the last word in Tubey Magic though.

This work includes a chorus, always a tough test for any recording/pressing to pass. The good news here is that the voices are clear, natural, separate and full-bodied. This is the hallmark of a vintage Golden Age recording — naturalness.

Side Two

A++ to A+++ again. The sound is big and rich, lively and open, with TONS of depth. Huge climaxes that hold together.

In addition the bass is big and powerful. You will not find many recordings of the work that do a better job of capturing such a large orchestra and chorus, and of course Monteux is a master of the French idiom.

Advice For Conductors

“Our principal work is to keep the orchestra together and carry out the composer’s instructions, not to be sartorial models, cause dowagers to swoon, or distract audiences by our ‘interpretation’.”

Pierre Monteux


The Monteux Era

by Thomas Simone

Monteux’s performance of Ravel’s masterpiece, Daphnis and Chloe is legendary. Monteux studied the score with Ravel and conducted the première of the ballet in 1912. John Culshaw produced the recording in 1959 for Decca with a sense of special occasion, and the recorded performance in very fine sound by Alan Reeve shows a common artistic purpose (London CS 6147/Decca SXL 2164).

Partly because of the need to place the entire score on a single disc, the recording is cut at a slightly low volume. Also the performance setting is larger and more reverberant than is usual for Decca. This perspective, however, works wonderfully with Monteux’s vision of Ravel’s mythic world of Mediterranean shepherds, shepherdesses, and pirates. Monteux’s characteristics show brilliantly in his instrumental balance and sense of delicacy, his mastery of the work’s shape, and his narrative understanding of the ballet.

Most important and moving of all is Monteux’s love of the music. We have few performances on record sound that offer the beauty, insight, and joy of Monteux’s sublime Daphnis and Chloe

Notes on Daphnis et Chloé from The Kennedy Center

Daphnis et Chloé, generally regarded as Ravel’s masterpiece, is one of the numerous important scores that owe their existence to the famous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was just beginning to commission new works for his Paris-based troupe in 1909. One of the composers he signed that year was the virtually unknown 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who became an international celebrity virtually overnight with the premiere of his Firebird the following year. At the same time Diaghilev contacted Stravinsky, he invited Ravel to compose the music for Daphnis et Chloé.

Ravel described his score as “a choreographic symphony in three parts, “in which his intention “was to compose a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous as to archaism than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which inclined readily enough to what French artists of the late eighteenth century imagined and depicted.” He wrote for a sumptuously large orchestra plus a wind machine and a wordless chorus at various points.

Notes from The Kennedy Center

Ravel began composing his score for Daphnis et Chloé in 1909 and completed it in 1912. In 1911 he extracted a brief concert suite from the portion of the work he had completed by then, and it was performed by the Colonne Orchestra under Gabriel Pierné on April 2 of that year; the very successful Suite No. 2 was produced two years later. In the meantime the premiere of the ballet was given by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 8, 1912, with choreography by Michel Fokine and décor by Léon Bakst; Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the title roles, and the conductor was Pierre Monteux. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed music from Daphniset Chloé on October 30, 1938, when Hans Kindler conducted the Suite No. 2, and performed that suite most recently on September 24, 2205, under Leonard Slatkin. Antal Doráti conducted the orchestra’s first performances of the full ballet score, on January 28-30, 1975; Barry Jekowsky conducted the most recent ones, on January 23-25, 1997.

The score calls for 3 flutes and 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, wind machine, celesta, 2 harps, strings, and a wordless chorus. Duration, 55 minutes.

Daphnis et Chloé, generally regarded as Ravel’s masterpiece, is one of the numerous important scores that owe their existence to the famous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was just beginning to commission new works for his Paris-based troupe in 1909. One of the composers he signed that year was the virtually unknown 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who became an international celebrity virtually overnight with the premiere of his Firebird the following year. At the same time Diaghilev contacted Stravinsky, he invited Ravel to compose the music for Daphnis et Chloé.

Seven years older than Stravinsky and a good deal more widely known, Ravel had written little for orchestra at that time. He was eager to work with Diaghilev, but insisted on revising the scenario Michel Fokine had written for Daphnis et Chloé. He had his piano score ready in 1910, but the orchestration went slowly; the concluding Danse générale was subjected to so many revisions that Ravel said he put in a full year’s work on that section alone.

During the three years in which Ravel was struggling with the orchestration of Daphnis et Chloé, Diaghilev produced not only The Firebird but also Stravinsky’s second and more remarkable ballet, Petrushka, and during the same period Ravel himself orchestrated two of his own piano compositions–the suite Ma Mère l’Oye and the Valses nobles et sentimentales–for use in ballets, both of which were staged before Daphnis was. As already noted, the first of the two concert suites from Daphnis was actually performed a year before Ravel completed the later portions of the ballet score. He finally accomplished that on April 5, 1912, barely two months before the staged premiere.

The scenario for the ballet, as prepared by Fokine and subsequently revised by Ravel, was adapted from a pastoral tale ascribed to an early Greek poet named Longus: Daphnis and Chloe, both abandoned in infancy on the island of Lesbos, have been brought up by benevolent shepherd folk. They fall in love, and Daphnis teaches Chloe to play the pipes he fashions from reeds. Chloe is abducted by priates, but is rescued by the great god Pan, and restored to Daphnis amid general rejoicing. (This Greek tale was translated into both French and English in the sixteenth century; there were several subsequent translations, and a number of musical consequences, one of the earliest still surviving being a charming opera-ballet composed by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier in 1747.)

Ravel described his score as “a choreographic symphony in three parts, “in which his intention “was to compose a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous as to archaism than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which inclined readily enough to what French artists of the late eighteenth century imagined and depicted.” He wrote for a sumptuously large orchestra plus a wind machine and a wordless chorus at various points. To accommodate Diaghilev, he prepared an alternative version in which the voices are replaced by instrumental doublings; but he issued a public objection to Diaghilev’s presentation of the work in London without the chorus in 1914.

For many years the only portions of this score performed in concerts and recordings were the two concert suites, ,which, according to Ravel’s pupil, confidant and biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel, “contain . . . the essential and best-written parts of the work.” Ravel himself, however, noted in his Autobiographical Sketch (1928), that his “choreographic symphony” is so constructed that even without the stage action it makes more sense when performed in full. “The work,” he wrote, “is constructed symphonically according to a strict tonal play by the method of a few motifs, the development of which achieves a symphonic homogeneity of style.” Listeners familiar only with the celebrated Suite No. 2 will recognize several of the themes, or their roots, in the first part of the complete score, and will be able to follow their development easily enough through the subtle metamorphoses corresponding to scenes in the stage action.

The ballet’s first part opens on a meadow near the grotto of the sacred nymphs, on a spring afternoon. Young shepherds and shepherdesses enter with offerings for the nymphs, and perform a solemn and dignified dance. The shepherdesses gather round Daphnis, and Chloe joins in their dance when she appears. Then Daphnis and his rival Dorcon perform their respective solos, and Lyceion enters and dances seductively; Daphnis at first mistakes her for Chloe and responds with confusion. At this point pirates burst in and abduct Chloe. Daphnis picks up her sandal, left behind in the struggle. As night falls, the three sacred nymphs descend from their pedestals and perform their “slow and mysterious dance.” Finding Daphnis in tears, they comfort him and invoke the aid of Pan, at whose appearance (represented by the wind machine) Daphnis prostrates himself and prays for Chloe’s safe return.

Part II is set in the pirates’ camp at night. The pirates, bearing torches, arrive with Chloe and their plunder. They perform a savage “warlike dance.” In response to a command from their chief, Bryaxis, Chloe, her hands tied, performs a dance of supplication and makes a thwarted effort to escape. Now, “suddenly the air seems laden with a strange feeling; small fires are lighted by invisible hands.” Several satyrs, sent by Pan, enter the scene and surround the pirates, who are dispersed by the arrival of Pan himself as the groud opens and those able to flee do so. Chloe now is seen unfettered, wearing a luminous crown.

The music of Part III, following a brief interlude depicting Chloe alone and motionless on a barren stage, is what Ravel extracted in its entirety to form the second of his two concert suites. The setting is once again the meadow, but now in the pre-dawn darkness. At daybreak bird-songs are heard, shepherds arrive to find Daphnis and waken him. Chloe is brought to him. They embrace, and then together mime the legend of Pan and Syrinx, narrated by the old bard Lammon. Following a sacrifice of two sheep on the altar of Pan, the shepherds and shepherdesses return to celebrate the lovers’ reunion. Daphnis and Chloe embrace as the wild bacchanal builds to a “joyous tumult.”

Wikipedia Notes

The record producer John Culshaw described Monteux as “that rarest of beings – a conductor who was loved by his orchestras … to call him a legend would be to understate the case.” Toscanini observed that Monteux had the best baton technique he had ever seen. Like Toscanini, Monteux insisted on the traditional orchestral layout with first and second violins to the conductor’s left and right, believing that this gave a better representation of string detail than grouping all the violins together on the left. On fidelity to composers’ scores, Monteux’s biographer John Canarina ranks him with Klemperer and above even Toscanini, whose reputation for strict adherence to the score was, in Canarina’s view, less justified than Monteux’s.

According to the biographical sketch in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Monteux “was never an ostentatious conductor … [he prepared] his orchestra in often arduous rehearsals and then [used] small but decisive gestures to obtain playing of fine texture, careful detail and powerful rhythmic energy, retaining to the last his extraordinary grasp of musical structure and a faultless ear for sound quality.” Monteux was extremely economical with words and gestures and expected a response from his smallest movement. Record producer Erik Smith recalled of Monteux’s rehearsals with the Vienna Philharmonic for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Brahms’s Second, “although he could not speak to the orchestra in German, he transformed their playing from one take to the next”.

The importance of rehearsal to Monteux was shown when, in 1923, Diaghilev asked him to conduct Stravinsky’s new Les Noces with no rehearsal, as the composer would already have conducted the first performance, Monteux following on from there. Monteux told the impresario “Stravinsky, ‘e can do what ‘e like, but I have to do what ze composer ‘as written.” Monteux’s self-effacing approach to scores led to occasional adverse comment; the music critic of The Nation, B. H. Haggin, while admitting that Monteux was generally regarded as one of the giants of conducting, wrote of his “repeatedly demonstrated musical mediocrity”. Other American writers have taken a different view. In 1957 Carleton Smith wrote, “His approach to all music is that of the master-craftsman. … Seeing him at work, modest and quiet, it is difficult to realize that he is a bigger box office attraction at the Metropolitan Opera House than any prima donna … that he is the only conductor regularly invited to take charge of America’s ‘big three’ – the Boston, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras.” In his 1967 book The Great Conductors, Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Monteux, “[A] conductor of international stature, a conductor admired and loved all over the world. The word ‘loved’ is used advisedly.” Elsewhere, Schonberg wrote of Monteux’s “passion and charisma”. When asked in a radio interview to describe himself (as a conductor) in one word, Monteux replied, “Damned professional”.

Throughout his career Monteux suffered from being thought of as a specialist in French music. The music that meant most to him was that of German composers, particularly Brahms, but this was often overlooked by concert promoters and recording companies. Of the four Brahms symphonies, he was invited by the recording companies to record only one, the Second. Recordings of his live performances of the First and Third have been released on CD, but the discography in Canarina’s biography lists no recording, live or from the studio, of the Fourth. The critic William Mann, along with many others, regarded him as a “supremely authoritative” conductor of Brahms, though Cardus disagreed: “In German music Monteux, naturally enough, missed harmonic weight and the right heavily lunged tempo. His rhythm, for example, was a little too pointed for, say, Brahms or Schumann.” Gramophone’s reviewer Jonathan Swain contends that no conductor knew more than Monteux about expressive possibilities in the strings, claiming that “the conductor who doesn’t play a stringed instrument simply doesn’t know how to get the different sounds; and the bow has such importance in string playing that there are maybe 50 different ways of producing the same note”.

In his 2003 biography, John Canarina lists nineteen “significant world premieres” conducted by Monteux. In addition to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring is a further Stravinsky work, The Nightingale. Monteux’s other premieres for Diaghilev included Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Debussy’s Jeux. In the concert hall he premiered works by, among others, Milhaud, Poulenc and Prokofiev. In a letter of April 1914 Stravinsky wrote “everyone can appreciate your zeal and your probity in regard to the contemporary works of various tendencies that you have had occasion to defend.”