AOM Logo April 1998

Pictures, Ports and Rare Ravel

Ports of Call: Chabrier España, Sibelius Finlandia, Ibert Escales, Alfven Midsummer Vigil, Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia, Smetana The Moldau, Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien

Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra Reference Recordings RR-80CD

Pictures at an Exhibition: Ravel Alborado del gracioso; Sheherazade, Ouverture de Feerie, Debussy Sarabande; Danse, Schumann Carnaval ,Chabrier Menuet Pompeux ,Mussourgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Eiji Oue. Minnesota Orchestra Reference Recordings RR-79CD

David Aspinall

Among my most pleasure-filled listening sessions of recent months have been those spent with these new Reference Recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra under Eiji Oue. Not profound, not life-changing - but pure pleasure. Perhaps on any scale of aesthetic measurement simple sensuousness is not near the top. But it is not less valid. No, the tone poem is not the symphony or the string quartet, but let us bless the Divinity that every meal is not steak, nor every plant a potato. Among the Deity's amiable eccentricities we have aardvarks and artichokes, and Delius and Sibelius. Let us therefore bless the orchestral miniature, which introduced so many of us to the music of the ages. How many of us found Brahms and Schoenberg before Bolero and Borodin?

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Oue's way with the light classical repertoire is sure and free of interpretive indulgence, which marked and sometimes marred the excursions of Stokowski, Bernstein and Ormandy into similar territory. Some may find this no advantage, preferring the 'personality' projected by Leopold and Lenny, or luxuriating in the caresses of the Philadelphia string section. However, Oue seems to tread the safe middle in his approach to the thrice familiar. He doesn't seem to condescend to this music, and his characteristic sobriety only amplifies the impact of the purely sensual elements.

Too, both these CDs have the ideal mix of the familiar and the (mildly) adventurous. Ports of Call follows the traditional pattern of having the travel agent program the repertoire. Some thirty-five years ago, Ormandy actually released an LP of the same title (including the Chabrier as well as Ibert). Argenta, Reiner and Ansermet made delightful albums devoted to just one locale - not coincidentally, Spain. The length of the CD allows Oue more latitude and longitude: the inclusion of the Alfven may encourage even the jaded listener to sample this collection. Vigil spawned the Swedish Rhapsody which, despite the zealous efforts of BIS, is about all most of us know of Alfven. Its thirteen minutes include much attractive creation and colour. The Minnesota's Escales is up there with Munch's famous Living Stereo version, and makes no apology to RCA sonically. The Smetana, Chabrier and Finlandia are all capably, even memorably, handled. Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, particularly, benefits from its respectful, straightforward treatment - by turns dramatic, lyric and bucolic.

I could wish that the Baradine were less straightforward: Oue is not one to loiter on the Steppes (compare timings: leisurely, loping Fournet, 8:24; brisk Ansermet, 6:32; express Oue, 6:08!!); his players are not allowed to linger over some of Baradine's most luscious themes. Nevertheless, this is among the most indestructible and endearing of all short works for orchestra - not a wasted gesture - Central Asia allures even as glimpsed from a racing train.

The other Minnesota CD is devoted to the transcriptions of Ravel, and over all it is even more interesting than Ports of Call. The Debussy baubles are captivating, as is Chabrier's vivacious but distinctly un-minuetish Menuet Pompeux. These three jewels are set around the Carnival excerpts, selections from the famous Schumann piano collection; what we have here are musical remains, the sole surviving traces of a Diaghilev extravaganza. They supply, in their context on this CD, a juxtaposition to remind us how far music travelled between the graceful world of Schumann and the restless excitements of fin de siecle Paris.

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But for me the raison d'etre of this recording is Ravel's Sheherazade, Ouverture de Feerie. This work is, again, musical remains, all we have of an ambitious but abortive attempt at opera by the composer, who had long been entranced by Rimsky-Korsakov's version of the Arabian nights. Don't be misled by the title: this twelve minute miniature bears no relation to the ravishing song cycle of the same name, Ravel's setting of the poems of Klingsor. The Ouverture was written in 1898, seven years before its namesake, but was only rediscovered in time for the Ravel centennial of 1975. With its translucent, intoxicating textures and gentleness, Feerie bears closer resemblance to Ma Mere l'Oye than to Rimsky-Korsakov's warhorse.

The main selling point of this CD, one supposes, must be the Pictures. Though they have been recorded times beyond counting, both in the Ravel orchestration and in their original piano version, these Mussourgsky inventions dare every generation of conductors and virtuosos - and virtuoso orchestras. Toscanini and Horowitz made electrifying versions during the 78 era; Ansermet, Reiner, Karajan, Szell, Mehta and Leibowitz gave us sensational performances (or recordings, at least) during the heyday of analogue. In my collection I have all the above, plus Dutoit's digital assault; to these ears the Leibowitz (RCA's The Power of the Orchestra) still takes the honours for orchestral reproduction and depth, though my conductor, colleague and friend Anthony Kershaw insists Reiner leaves it in the dust as a performance. Mehta and a good many modern recordings, such as Maazel on Telarc, may even eclipse Leibowitz as sonic spectacle, but what with Mussourgsky's habitual eruptions, and the psychic wear and tear that come almost inevitably with digital brass attack, the RCA still sounds ideal for this work. But with that bias stated, this new Minnesota version can dwell in such exalted company, both as recording and performance. Actually, even Mussourgsky's final peroration is better than tolerable with the natural balance and ambience Reference Recordings manages for Oue. Over all, these are among the most satisfying - and least exhausting - digital reproductions of orchestral sound I have yet heard.

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