Ravel: Orchestral Works - Sinfonia of London, John Wilson
Chandos CHAN 5280
Classical - Orchestral
Ma Mère l'Oye
Alborada del gracioso
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Vales nobles et sentimentales
Sinfonia of London
Following their second BBC Music Magazine Award (for Respighi’s Roman Trilogy) and universal praise for their first concert (at the BBC Proms in 2021), Sinfonia of London and John Wilson turn to the orchestral works of Ravel for this their sixth studio album. Not only an outstanding pianist and one of France’s greatest composers, Maurice Ravel is acclaimed as one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. His unique ability to conjure the widest possible range of colours and textures from the orchestral palette is amply demonstrated on this album.
The programme opens with La Valse, conceived as a snapshot of 1850s Vienna. The continuous sequence of waltzes becomes increasingly insistent until the sound is almost utterly overwhelming. Other ballets also feature – Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) and the notorious Boléro, both recorded here for the first time in their complete original versions. Ravel’s orchestrations of his own piano works complete the programme: Valses nobles et sentimentales, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Alborada del gracioso, which demonstrates both Ravel’s fascination with Spanish sounds and culture and the sheer virtuosity of orchestral playing of Sinfonia of London.
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Review by Graham Williams - January 26, 2022
John Wilson and his hand-picked Sinfonia of London, a body that has become more than just a session orchestra since their official debut appearance at the BBC Proms last year, have already demonstrated considerable affinity with the vibrant orchestral works of French composers. Their scintillating performances of Chabrier, Debussy, Ibert et al. on the collection entitled ‘Escales’ Escales: French Orchestral Works - Wilson and their more recent Dutilleux SACD Dutilleux: Le Loup - Wilson have been frequent visitors to my player. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Wilson should now devote a very generously filled (83’45”) SACD to the colourful and fastidious orchestral music of Maurice Ravel, one that once again showcases the easy virtuosity and considerable panache of his Sinfonia of London.
The longest of the six works on this disc is ‘Ma Mère l’Oye’ that started life as a piano duet before it was orchestrated by the composer. Though it is often performed as a five-movement orchestral suite Ravel added a Prélude, Danse de Rouet and four exquisite interludes when the work was refashioned as a ballet in 1912. Wilson gives us a marvellously sensitive rendition of the full ballet in which the Sinfonia of London winds excel throughout, and he elicits notably magical and hushed string playing in the work’s final section, ‘Le jardin féerique,’ that often eludes other conductors on disc.
‘Alborada del gracioso’ is performed with a wonderful combination of visceral attack and stylish sensuality (the languid bassoon solo near the start is especially atmospheric), not to mention the rhythmic acuity one expects from Wilson and these musicians. The crisp Chandos recording ensures that every detail of the composer’s writing for an extensive percussion section is crystal clear, but not over emphasised.
Ravel’s fascination with the waltz is represented here with an engaging and graciously played ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’ of 1912, while Wilson and his orchestra convey the dark ambiguities of ‘La Valse’, composed in the aftermath and carnage of World War I with frightening intensity and riveting orchestral precision. In contrast, Wilson’s account of the ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’ has a poised simplicity and flow that avoids any trace of sickly sentimentality that can sometimes mar this lovely piece
The ubiquitous ‘Boléro’ completes the programme, and here the liner notes inform us that ‘John Wilson has meticulously restored many details which have become lost through careless reading of Ravel’s intentions and through the transformation of the ballet score into a popular concert piece’. Whether or not these details would be noticed by many listeners is a moot point, but the antiphonal snare drums are most effective here and Wilson’s pacing is mesmeric.
As expected the Chandos engineering is excellent throughout, with the acoustic of the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn bringing clarity, spaciousness and depth of image in equal measures to the recorded sound.
Comparisons with any of the countless other recordings of these ever popular pieces, all of which are already well represented on SACD, are superfluous and while one or more of them will be found already in the libraries of Ravel aficionados, the eloquence of Wilson’s performances – subtly nuanced in the more reflective pieces and rhythmically incisive elsewhere – are unmissable.
Another absolute winner for these artists.
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