I was not familiar with conductor Lionel Bringuier until looking into this Ravel set. I searched and found a fantastic YouTube video of him conducting Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice. And I was thrilled with this performance! What I heard was a faithfulness to the score that I have heretofore only dreamed of in this piece. His adherence to Dukas' specific, strict tempos allows him to demand the orchestra play the score as written, particularly with regard to articulation. Hearing the woodwinds correctly articulate passages which are usually played slurred because the conductor insists on too fast a tempo is an absolute revelation. And it's exactly what I have heard in my head all these many decades, just waiting for a conductor to one day realize it correctly.
Mightily impressed, I invested in this Ravel box set (despite reading somewhat mixed reviews) and I am happy to discover much of the same insistence upon faithfulness to the printed score (which is an amazingly rare thing to behold) while at the same time infusing it with the utmost musical understanding and naturally flowing line.
I'd like to start with some general observations which apply to the entire set. First, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra plays beautifully throughout. However, they are not the virtuoso ensemble that the Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago Orchestras are (to name a few). And they do not play as effortlessly as one comes to expect from listening to other recordings. However, there is something to be said for an orchestra which has to work at it. It minimizes the sense of routine and monotony one so often hears from the super-virtuoso ensembles which can play this stuff in their sleep. And Bringuier requires them to they play this music as envisioned by Ravel in the printed score, rather than simply playing on autopilot. This results in many instances of discovery (for example: La Valse sounds like a real waltz - even (especially) in its first appearance, after the brooding introduction). And there is a pervading sense of spontaneity and freshness throughout this set, which is a refreshing change from the norm.
Second, the recorded sound is very good without being state-of-the-art. These are live performances, and while one typically hears the microphones placed close to the musicians to help alleviate audience noise, this is not the case here. I was taken aback at the deep layers of the orchestra, as portrayed within the recessed soundstage, with a very relaxed perspective. (Fortunately, the audience is cooperatively very quiet and applause has been excised.) This distance from the microphones helps to lend a beautifully blended tonality and rich saturation of colors which we have not heard from this orchestra in previous recordings. As recorded here, this orchestra reminds me very much of the gorgeous tonality produced by the Boston Symphony. And in comparing this set to Seiji Ozawa's glorious Ravel collection on a 3-disc DG set (minus the concertos), there is no denying the recording in Boston is a little on the cool, analytical side of the sonic spectrum. I always come away longing for a touch more warmth and richness. However, there is also no denying the sense of power and impact to the big moments, which are simply not achieved in Zurich. The DG engineers deny Bringuier a bit of dynamic robustness in climaxes with that distant perspective. However, it is not a serious detriment. The Orchestra plays with energetic dynamics, but the climaxes are a bit blunted by the recording.
Third, the piano concertos, recorded in an empty hall (sans audience), are not quite as distinctive as the orchestral set. Although well played, they sound a bit careful, lacking a bit of spontaneity and sheer vigor. The recorded sound is also less satisfyingly natural.
Among highlights, the opening Sheherazade Overture is gloriously sensuous and rhapsodic. Tzigane is played most virtuosically by Ray Chen. And in obvious agreement with Bringuier's desire to remain faithful to the score, the soloist is not tempted to over-do it. The "gypsy" and the "fiddle" passages are played exactly as written, and are all the more effective for it. Ravel truly knew what he was doing and to "help" him, as so many do, does the music a disservice.
Rapsodie Espagnol is another fine example where obeying the score pays dividends. In the sensual sections of the 3rd movement, the string "sighs", con glissandi, are all the more effective when not exaggerated and stretched out like taffy. Now, they align with the clarinet line underneath it, making tremendous musical sense. Yet, what's so magical here (and elsewhere) is that Bringuier still manages to relax just enough to provide the perfect rubato without altering the tempo. It's remarkable when done correctly. The same applies to La Valse (mentioned above), where just a touch of rubato is all it needs.
Similarly, the "sunrise" opening of the 3rd section of Daphnis & Chloe (where the 2nd Suite begins) benefits from this approach. I fail to understand why so many conductors tug and pull and stretch the tempo here, making the basses sound like they're stuck in molasses and thus cumbersome and clunky just to try to move to the next note. This also disrupts the 32nd-note filigree passages in the clarinets and flutes (plus harps and celeste - and later on in violins, divisi a8), and they end up having to slow up at the end of their one-measure passage to hand off to the next instrument to avoid getting ahead of the bases. In Bringuier's hands, the cellos and basses play with a natural agility, perfectly in tempo (yet superbly pianissimo), allowing the woodwinds to do their thing without interruption. Now it makes musical sense. We hear a hushed, dark, misty landscape, fragrant with the anticipation of life just beginning to awaken. It's not a clunky, heaviness. It occurs with a natural grace, just as it should.
Bringuier does, however, allow himself the liberty to stretch out the central sections of Alborada del gracioso (with its lovely bassoon solos) to an alarming (and expected) degree, which is one of the rare instances where he follows what most conductors do with the piece.
More traditional performances in this set can be found in Le Tombeau de Couperin and Ma mere l'Oye. These are played with the utmost graciousness and natural utterance of line, but ultimately they are not really in any way distinctive. Nor is Bolero. I was disappointed Bringuier adopts a tempo which finishes it off in 15 minutes, rather than the 17 that Ravel specified. (Only Riccardo Muti comes to mind as strictly observing that requirement - and his is an astonishing performance of it, if only the recording weren't so harsh).
I want to caution anyone against thinking the above comments infer that Bringuier, in his desire to play this music as it is written, is in any way rigid, metronomic, or cold. Just the opposite, actually. It takes a real talent, and interpretive prowess, to make musical expression while remaining within the boundaries of the printed score. It's easy - and happens far too frequently - to disregard what's on the page and do whatever you feel like to make a musical point. Bringuier doesn't stoop to such nonsense. His ability to caress a musical phrase with the most delicate of rubato and tasteful phrasing makes all the musical sense in the world. Which is what makes this set special.
All in all, this is a most rewarding set, even though better recordings of the piano concertos can be found elsewhere. And if neither the orchestral playing or recording quality are quite as extraordinary as the very best to be found, both are very good indeed. And the interpretations and performances as a whole prove Lionel Bringuier is a conductor to watch. I look forward to more from him (and a studio recording of the Dukas would be most welcome!).