Every once in awhile a disc comes along which draws in the listener in such an all-encompassing way, it leaves one moved beyond words. This disc is an example of just that. Even though the children's ballet, L'Eventail de Jeanne (Jean's Fan), gets top billing on the front cover, it is Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye complete ballet which comes first on the CD. Listening to it, I sat mesmerized, unable to move or barely breathe, for fear of missing a nuance here, a detail there. If you think (as did I) the Ravel is just a filler for the rarer and more adventuresome Jean's Fan ballet, you'd be wrong (as was I). For this is the most engrossing, characterful, lovingly portrayed Mother Goose I've ever heard. I was moved practically to tears by the end. It is heartfelt, graceful, tender, rapturous, gorgeous, ravishing and imminently moving. The playing of this magnificent (French) orchestra, under their American conductor John Axelrod, is beyond reproach and can be matched by very few others. I had not heard of this orchestra before (and don't expect me to translate what it all means), but the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire is an orchestra I will seek out at every opportunity, especially with Axelrod on the podium.
I have recently listened to two other new recordings of Mother Goose (Slatkin/Naxos and Bringuier/DG box set) and, as good as both of those are, neither can match Axelrod's natural beauty of utterance and the sheer immersion of the listener into the experience.
Following it, the ballet, Jean's Fan, is a novelty of sorts, being a compilation of short pieces written by a variety of French composers. And it is delightful and great fun. It has been recorded before - the one on my shelves is a 1985 Chandos disc, with Geoffrey Simon conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. It is a glorious performance, all sheer fun from beginning to end, each of its 10 sections are full of colorful orchestration and individual, highly imaginative miniature creations. If forced to choose between the two recordings, the nod goes toward the Chandos for its glorious recording quality that this new Naxos cannot quite match. As good as the Naxos is, the Chandos is just a touch more spacious and richly colorful. Interestingly, reading the Naxos booklet, I was surprised to discover that not only were both of these ballets recorded back in 2012 and are just now making their way onto CD, they were also recorded at two different sessions, separated by 3 months. And the Ravel sounds slightly more natural and sumptuous than the coupling.
In the end, it is the Ravel which is really the star of this show. And it is absolutely not to be missed. Having the Jean's Fan as a coupling is merely icing on the cake.