After recently listening to Deneve's glorious 2012 Debussy set on Chandos, I was eager to hear his Ravel, recorded around the same time (2012-14). Unfortunately, a change of orchestra and record label puts it in an entirely different league.
It is lamentable that Deneve and the Chandos production team didn't continue recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for this Ravel project. Instead, Deneve utilizes the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, of which he was principal conductor at the time, and its local record label, SWR Media Services.
I had intended to prepare an extensive, in-depth review of this set after being so thoroughly impressed with the Debussy. But after listening to several of the orchestral selections, I decided there simply wasn't enough to discuss in a comprehensive overview. So I will just touch on a few observations which inform the entire set and let it be.
This is an attractively-priced, 5-disc box of previously released CDs. There are 3 discs of purely orchestral music, followed by 2 discs of opera and vocal music, with a suite from Mother Goose appended at the very end of disc 5, completely out of place all by itself after an opera. Its inclusion is odd, as the complete ballet appears on disc 2, and its placement puzzling.
Oddities continue with the enclosed booklet. While there is a detailed track listing and exhaustive details about the recording sessions (dates, locations, producers, engineers, etc.), there is not a word about the music or the composer. (Although they do manage to include bios of the conductor and orchestra.)
And while I'm at it, I thought the picture on the front cover was, frankly, a bit creepy. But that's just me.
So while not impressed with the production itself, the music is what's important, and Deneve's talents shine forth. However, there is no denying the Stuttgart Radio Symphony is no match for the Royal Scottish National. As good as they are, they simply lack the consummate refinement and prowess of the very best orchestras, despite some very good playing. Nor can SWR come anywhere close to the state-of-the-art recording quality typical of Chandos, or many other labels for that matter.
Beginning with Le Tombeau de Couperin, I was pleased to hear how delightful, gracious and well-played it is. I heard good things in Alborada del Gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole too. But it didn't take long before it became painfully obvious the recorded sound was going to be a big problem. For in crescendos and tutti passages, the sound darkens and compresses, and the acoustic becomes claustrophobic and stifling.
Curiously, inner detail is petty good, with some obvious help from the control room providing judicious spotlighting. And dynamics are also pretty good. There is impressive power in the bass region, with full-bodied presence from lower strings and some truly dramatic bass drum whacks. But the sound suffers insurmountably in the highs, seriously lacking sparkle, air and spaciousness. It's as if there is a blanket on top of the entire treble region and the sound struggles to open up and expand effortlessly into the hall.
These sonic impressions varied in severity from piece to piece, no doubt indicative of the different recording sessions involved, where perhaps minor adjustments were being made.
But, as ever, Deneve is marvelous. I really like the way he commands crisp, incisive articulation from his orchestra, especially in those works written originally for piano. For example, Alborada and Rapsodie espagnol are very impressive for their precision of playing. And yet, he also relishes the elements of orchestration which can only be accomplished by a symphony orchestra, such as string glissandi and the endless variety of tonal shadings and dynamic contrasts. The results are alluring, engaging and often very exciting. If only the recorded sound was more flattering.
And while the orchestral playing is very good, there are times when it can sound a bit labored. I noticed it only occasionally, and the final danse generale (Bacchanale) of Daphnis and Chloe sounds a touch clumsy (taken at a quite reasonable tempo, by the way). The recording certainly doesn't help, making it all sound rather noisy and far from exciting.
I decided to call it quits there with only some spot checks on the rest. I didn't try the two operas, which aren't my specialty anyway. And I didn't bother with the Mother Goose suite, which is clearly an afterthought, all but forgotten at the very end after the operas.
After recently hearing (and reviewing) two splendid SACDs of Ravel's music from John Wilson (Chandos) and Oramo (BIS), this CD set from Deneve is disappointing. The recorded sound from Chandos and BIS simply blows away what SWR manages to produce. And that is a real shame. This could (and should) have been an excellent collection. Nonetheless, if you are more tolerant of poor recorded sound than I, there is a lot of good music-making on offer here. And maybe it sounds better on some stereo systems than others. But for me, it inhibited full musical enjoyment.