It is interesting comparing this Ravel collection to the one from John Wilson on Chandos, issued just 2 months earlier. (See my review of it elsewhere on this blog.) While I had some issues with the Chandos production for Wilson, I found his music-making very good, if perhaps a little too-matter-of-fact for Ravel and lacking some love. Oramo, in stark contrast, is everything John Wilson isn't; and BIS provides even more flattering sound for him than Chandos does for Wilson.
It is worth noting both releases are multi-channel hybrid SACDs - not to be taken for granted these days.
In general, Oramo and BIS are simply seductive in this music; whereas, Wilson and Chandos are a bit more extrovert, straight-forward and bare-bones. Both are valid approaches and one might prefer one over the other depending on one's mood. I tend to prefer Oramo across the board, especially given the sumptuous recorded sound from BIS. It is more atmospheric and sensuous than the Chandos, and possesses a stunning dynamic range. Oramo also creates a more seductive atmosphere, taking his time to bring out more color in the orchestration. And his orchestra responds with a richness of musical expression which is alluring.
Getting into more detail, the two programs are not identical. But there are 3 duplications, inviting back-to-back comparisons.
Beginning with La Valse, Wilson is a little careful with his footing, whereas Oramo positively lifts the music afloat, with more elasticity and rather more energetic involvement. This music really dances in his hands and BIS's wider dynamic range pays dividends here.
Wilson makes Alborada del Gracioso a thrilling showpiece. Oramo keeps it closer to the piano original, with a steadier tempo and more crisply articulated pizzicatos and with sharply executed accents. Both are equally good in slightly different ways. And both have the benefit of a wonderful bassoon soloist, neither of which is identified in the booklets. tsk tsk.
Pavane is a toss-up.
There are standouts in the remainder of both programs. Wilson serves up a fabulous Vales Nobles et Sentimentales, showing him at his absolute best. Oramo gives us a wonderful Une barque sur l'ocean and a Le Tombeau de Couperin which includes the two extra movements of the original piano version which Ravel never orchestrated. Fugue and Toccata are here played in orchestrations by Kenneth Hesketh. And fabulous they are. These extra sections have been recorded before but in different orchestrations. Vladimir Ashkenazy, in his 2003 recording with the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo) on Exton, plays "arrangements" by Michael Round, which I actually prefer, other than his use of the trumpet in moments of Toccata which doesn't befit the music, sounding labored and clumsy. Otherwise it is crisp, fleet and as close to the original as possible. Hesketh is instantly more rhapsodic and colorful. And that works surprisingly well too. (Incidentally, the name Kenneth Hesketh may sound familiar from his orchestration of 3 Dutilleux wind Sonatas, recorded by John Wilson on a 2021 Chandos release, also reviewed elsewhere here on my blog.)
Getting back to the recorded sound (which makes such an important contribution in Impressionistic music), in addition to the spectacular dynamics, the BIS SACD is more naturally balanced than the Chandos. From top to bottom, the orchestra shimmers in a gloriously airy and spacious acoustic, and climaxes expand effortlessly into the hall. In comparison, the Chandos struggles just a bit, sounding slightly cramped and "tubby" in the bass.
I found both collections rewarding and, curiously, enjoyed them more during a second listen. It is good to have new recordings which can stand alongside those classics from Ozawa and Boulez.
I'd love to see both conductors record more Ravel - particularly a complete Daphnis and Chloe from John Wilson and everything else from Oramo.
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