Just like this team's Debussy, Pentatone drenches this Ravel in molten dark chocolate. But what a performance!
This is a very fine complete Daphnis and Chloe. However, right off the get-go, I had concerns. First, nowhere is there a chorus listed. Not on the cover, not on the back, nowhere in the booklet. Simply nowhere. This score loses so much when the choral parts are missing and played by the optional orchestra parts. But all is good - there is indeed a chorus, somewhere, sung by some unknown group, which has somehow participated in these sessions. And they are excellent.
Second, the sound. Beginning with Une Barque sur l'ocean, I was dismayed to hear unusually dark, mushy, compressed sound. Fortunately, the sound improves somewhat for the ballet, especially in focus and "presence". Those who have heard this conductor's Debussy disc, also for Pentatone, will know what to expect. Pentatone distances the orchestra way back and submerges it in molten dark-chocolate. Not only is there a lack of sparkle and air, climaxes grow congested and fail to expand as they should. I can't fathom why the engineers decided Ravel and Debussy need help from them in making their scores sound sumptuous and "Impressionistic". As a matter of fact just the opposite is true - the cleaner/clearer the recording, the better to hear how masterfully these composers accomplish it all on their own, with richly colorful orchestration. Just listen once again to the fabulous Dutoit/Montreal/Decca and Ozawa/Boston/DG recordings of this music for prime examples.
However, not all is negative. Softer, more atmospheric passages - and the strings in particular - are simply ravishing in the dark sumptuousness. And the a cappella chorus at the beginning of Part II benefits from the distant perspective, emanating from way back in the mists. And occasionally, a closely mic'd detail jumps out with startling impact - such as the wind machine in track 8, which is quite stunning. But soon after, as the action really gets going in Part II's Warring dance of the pirates, frustration sets in as climaxes struggle to expand and the sound becomes hard and congested - just the opposite of effortless.
I make a big deal out of Pentatone's engineering, on both this and the companion Debussy disc, because Gimeno has a real feel and understanding of this music. And his orchestra plays brilliantly. It's a pity Pentatone makes us work so hard to hear it - this Daphnis and Chloe is spectacular. Gimeno's tempos are natural and flowing, without ever dragging. He understands this is dance music and Ravel doesn't need his help with exorbitant rubato or lagging tempos. He's also scrupulous with dynamics. For example, the opening to Part III (Sunrise) is absolutely, truly pianissimo - and it is simply breathtaking. He also understands that this score can, and should be, thrilling. Just listen to the frenzy he whips up in the Danse geurriere in Part II! And the final Bacchanale is very fast, yet not so wild it's about to spin off the tracks. The fast tempo is securely under control and, for once, doesn't sound breathless. Inner details, which are often smoothed over and whisked away in the rush to the finish line, are actually clearly articulated by this fabulous orchestra. Even with Pentatone keeping the lid on the sound, it's as exciting as you're ever likely to hear.
The fillers - which are no more than that - inexplicably come AFTER that most exciting Daphnis finale. Placed there, they become even more of a let-down than they might otherwise be, and there simply is no logical reason for it. It would never be programmed this way in a live concert. This is nothing more than a senseless production blunder.
Finally, to emphasize my point about the recording quality, listen to this very same orchestra and conductor on disc 2 of their recent Stravinsky SACD double. Pentatone provides a completely different soundscape for them in Stravinsky. They clear out the cobwebs, open up the sound, lighten up the darkness, and allow dynamics to expand effortlessly. As a result, the performances simply come alive! Sparkle and articulation are restored and the music positively dances. This is one of the best sounding SACDs I can recall. Finally, we hear how this orchestra really sounds in their home venue. And frankly, we hear what we know Pentatone is capable of. They have produced many, many state of the art recordings over the years. Which makes it all the more baffling why they have struggled so terribly with this French repertoire.
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