Ravel: Cantates pour le Prix de Rome - Rophé
Classical - Vocal
Ravel: Alyssa, Alcyone, Myrrha, L'Aurore, La nuit, Les Bayadères, Matinée de Provence, Tout est lumière
Clarisse Dalles, Veronique Gens & Vannina Santoni (sopranos)
Janina Baechle & Sophie Koch (mezzos)
Julien Behr, Mathys Lagier & Michael Spyres (tenors)
Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
Chœur de l'ONPL
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire
Pascal Rophé (conductor)
Between 1803 and 1968, the Grand Prix de Rome marked the zenith of composition studies at the Paris Conservatoire. In Maurice Ravel’s time the competition included an elimination round (a fugue and a choral piece) followed by a cantata in the form of an operatic scena. The entries were judged by a jury which generally favoured expertise and conformity more than originality and Ravel’s growing reputation as a member of the avant-garde was therefore hardly to his advantage, and may explain why he never won the coveted Premier Grand Prix, and the three-year stay at Rome’s Villa Medici that went with it.
The present two-disc set brings together all the vocal works that Ravel composed for the Prix de Rome – five shorter settings for choir and orchestra and three cantatas, each with three characters taking part in a plot which followed a more or less fixed sequence of introduction, recitative and aria, a duet, a trio and a brief conclusion. First published more than half a century after Ravel’s death, these test pieces for the Prix de Rome have never acquired the popularity of his other early works, such as Pavane pour une infante défunte, Jeux d’eau or the String Quartet. They are worth more than their reputation as academic exercises might suggest, however, and deserve to be better known, especially when performed by Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and Pascal Rophé and a team of vocal soloists including Véronique Gens and Michael Spyres.
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Review by John Broggio - July 10, 2022
This wonderful set shows another side to Ravel which have not garnered the attention they clearly deserve, in large part to these compositions not being published until more than 50 years after Ravel's death.
The Grand Prix de Rome ran from 1803 to 1968 for composers with the winner being gifted a 3-5 year residence in Rome, including a bursary to cover living expenses. The first round of the competition required a short (~5 minutes) piece for soloist, chorus and orchestra and the second required an operatic scene of ~25 minutes duration. Ravel entered five times, got through to the second round three times but (controversially) never won the competition: the last unsuccessful attempt led to widespread change within the Conservatoire de Paris. Perhaps the most notable feature of these works, compared to their more famous contemporaries, is the more conventional tonal and rhythmic language employed. The use of more conventional major/minor tonality as opposed to the modal tonality exhibited in his most famous works, makes one reassess Ravel as a composer.
The second disc has the pieces submitted for the first round: L'Aurore (1905), La Nuit (1902), Les Bayadères (1900), Matinée de Provence (1903) and Tout est lumière (1901). L'Aurore has a tenor soloist (Mathys Lagier) with the others a soprano soloist (Clarisse Dalles), both accompanied by the Chœur de l'ONPL and Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire under Pascal Rophé's baton. Although short in duration and using similar forces, Ravel displays considerable ingenuity in the ways he adapts the rules of the competition to suit his creative impulses. Although perhaps not as striking as some of Ravel's works where fewer constraints were imposed upon him, his efforts contain many beautiful passages and this is reflected by the response of all the performers. Both Lagier and Dalles have an admirably clear tone and the ONPL provide them and the chorus with a sumptuous canvas to paint their contributions, all of which is ably handled by Pascal Rophé. There are a few moments where expression veers towards strain in the vocal contributions but nothing to discourage repeated listening unless one demands the purity of, say, the Tallis Scholars.
The first disc has the three second round compositions Ravel submitted: Alyssa (1903), Alcyone (1902) and Myrrha (1901). All open with a short orchestral prelude and are followed by three (Alyssa, Myrrha) or five (Alcyone) scenes. In Scene I of Alyssa, Véronique Gens (Alyssa) and Julien Behr (Braïzyl) treat their characters to the most ravishing sound and the ONPL respond in kind. As the excitement increases in Scene II, so does the contrast of expression between Gens, Behr and the ONPL who increasingly feel like they are equal contributors to the drama. In Scene III, the baritone of Jacques Imbrailo (Barde) joins and the music quickly begins a dramatic crescendo in which a glorious trio breaks out. Following a short orchestral interlude that resets the emotional temperature before it climaxes with Behr's character triumphantly exiting the stage. Given the superlative performances here, it becomes very hard to imagine why Ravel was not triumphant.
In Alcyone, the ONPL and Rophé are joined by Sophie Koch, Janina Baechle and Julien Behr. After a prelude that completely belies what is to follow, scene I sees the two mezzo-soprano roles in dialogue, with Baechle's Sophrona attempting to console an agitated Alcyone (Koch). As in the opening prelude, Rophé draws beautiful gossamer-like sounds from the ONPL which supports Koch and Baechle without every threatening to overwhelm them. In Scene II, Ravel almost sneaks in a purely orchestral interlude but for five exclamations from L'ombre de Céyx (Behr) before Koch takes centre stage in Scene III as she fears for Behr's character. In Scene IV, Behr and Koch duet to let Alcyone learn of her husband's fate. Sophrona rejoins in Scene V attempting to prevent Alcyone's death. All soloists fully commit to their roles and the sparing use of ponticello by the ONPL adds considerably to the evocation of Alcyone meeting her dead husband. Again, the decision not to award a prize to Ravel seems, with the benefit of hindsight, rather difficult to justify.
Myrrha also has three protagonists: Myrrha (Vannina Santoni), Sardanapale (Michael Spyres) and Bélésis (Jacques Imbrailo). The (relatively) short prelude is the most unsettled of the three submitted to the Prix de Rome. This tension quickly dissipates as Scene I commences with a lengthy solo for Spyres and the mood Sardanapale is not fully in keeping with the opening. Myrrha joins at the end of Scene I, although the music Ravel supplies perhaps doesn't adequately reflect the subject matter of the text; re-use of the opening prelude would have perhaps been more in spirit. In Scene III, Bélésis joins in with a succession of solos, duets and then a trio before the work ends in a touching duet between Santoni and Spyres. Notwithstanding the slightly strange response to the text by Ravel, as with the rest of this set the ONPL, Rophé and the vocal soloists is nothing short of wonderful.
As one might hope (and perhaps expect), the sound is wonderfully rich with the orchestra neither overwhelming or being overwhelmed by the soloists. In common with all the very best recordings, the actual sound of the discs is so carefully balanced that any overt consideration of the sound while listening is quickly forgotten to give way to pure pleasure.
In short, this disc is a wonderful antidote to all the troubling uncertainty that we face today and cannot be recommended highly enough.
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