When Daniel Barenboim brought his Orchestre de Paris to the United States last spring, it was to perform the Beethoven symphonies. On records, though, he and his French orchestra have been giving us French music--several major works of Berlioz and Debussy in addition to some lesser material. The latest offering is a digitally recorded Ravel package containing "La Valse," "Pavane for a Dead Princess," the Second Suite from "Daphnis and Chloe" and "Bolero" (Deutsche Grammophon 2532.041; cassette 3302.041).
The playing is first-rate and the sound is sumptuous, but these performances just don't make it. "Bolero," taken at Ravel's specified tempo, is fairly successful, but in the other three pieces there is a certain lifelessness that, while perhaps hard to define, is all too apparent in the listening.
What a difference in a similar Ravel collection, also recorded digitally, from Charles Dutoit and his Montreal Symphony Orchestra (London LDR-71059)! This team, in its debut recording of the complete "Daphnis and Chloe" (LDR-71028), identified itself as world-class, and it is heartening to know we are to have the complete orchestral Ravel from this source. This orchestra, as I'm hardly the first to observe, is probably the finest French orchestra anywhere, and Dutoit's feeling for Ravel is as remarkable as his ability to communicate it.
On this disc, he conducts "Bolero" (a little faster than the indicated 17 minutes, but enormously effectively and with stunning virtuoso licks from the various orchestral soloists), the "Rapsodie espagnole," "Alborada del gracioso" and an unhurried, absolutely knockout "La Valse." Only Fritz Reiner and his Chicagoans, and Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, have given us such heady accounts of the "Rapsodie," and neither of those performances was nearly as gorgeously recorded as Dutoit's. A "must" item, no matter how many duplications it may mean.
Back in the '60s, Lorin Maazel recorded all the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has since remade the Fourth with the Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc DG-10047, digital), and now CBS has brought out his digital remake of the Fifth with the Cleveland Orchestra (IM 36700; cassette HMT 36700). Whereas the Maazel-Vienna Fifth was a perfectly competent recording but in no way outstanding, the new Cleveland performance is on an entirely different level, one of the truly distinguished accounts of this supposedly overexposed work.
Here Maazel seems to have found a near-ideal balance between formal and emotional elements. The grand tunes are allowed to sing out without either gratuitous underscoring or embarrassed reticence, and the music is kept moving, at tempos that enhance its dignity without effacing its heart. The gorgeous scoring makes its full effect, as an integral factor in the overall expressive scheme rather than a showcase for the orchestra. This is quite a showcase, of course, and in that respect an unusually successful one, in one of CBS' most vividly realistic digital recordings so far.
In Vienna, where he has set up residence as director of the Vienna State Opera, Maazel has recorded more Tchaikovsky with the Philharmoniker -- the "1812" Overture and "Marche slave" -- together with Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory." The Vienna State Opera Chorus is added to the orchestra in "1812" (CBS digital IM 37252; cassette HMT 37252).
"Marche slave" goes well enough, but the other two works are disappointing in precisely those areas in which they ought to make their bombastic points. While I heartily concur with Maazel's written defense of "Wellington's Victory," I have to wonder why CBS provided so little in the way of stereo separation between the British and French sides. No one familiar with Hermann Scherchen's wonderful, early-stereo version of this piece is likely to find Maazel's very satisfying, either in this respect or in terms of the wit Scherchen brought to his reading.
In the "1812" I've never cared for vocal additions, but have found the music more appealing just as Tchaikovsky wrote it, under such conductors as Reiner, Haitink, and Boult. Muti and the Philadelphia have given us the most striking digital account of this war horse so far (Angel DS-3777), but I hope RCA soon will do a "Point 5" restoration job on Reiner's incomparable version.