Orchestre National de Lyon, Naxos
When Leonard Slatkin’s tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra came to an end in 2008, he became music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; in 2011-12, he also assumed the leadership position at the Orchestre National de Lyon. Almost immediately, he inaugurated a series of live recordings with his French ensemble, focused on music by French composers, for the Naxos label. The latest discs in his Ravel set are devoted to the composer’s two one-act operas, most recently his charming but rarely heard 1911 comedy “L’heure espagnole.”
The rich-toned mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet is a seductive, sometimes acidic Concepción, the cheating wife of the clockmaker Torquemada, played by the light-voiced tenor Luca Lombardo. She schemes with Don Iñigo Gomez, sung with oily smoothness by the bass Nicolas Courjal, to get her husband the job of winding the municipal clocks, which gets him out of the house regularly. Concepción invites a young poet, Gonzalve, sung with heroic strength by tenor Frédéric Antoun, whose visit coincides with that of Don Iñigo. She has her hands even more full managing this “Spanish time” when Ramiro, sung with clueless geniality by baritone Marc Barrard, stops by to have his watch fixed. The two would-be lovers both have to hide inside large clocks to avoid the burly mule-driver, who makes himself useful carrying the now extra-heavy clocks up and down the stairs, impressing Concepción with his muscles.
Ravel was a master of orchestration at the time he composed these pithy operas. The score of “L’heure espagnole” opens with ticking noises from clock pendulums and the ringing of bells, part of a vast percussion section, including the curious sound of a musical spring. When the heavy-set Don Iñigo arrives on the scene, the sarrusophone, a large and deep metallic reed instrument, has some hilariously flatulent solos. At one point, Ravel instructs the sarrusophone player to remove his mouthpiece and play as loudly as possible on it, in imitation of a rooster crowing.
Ravel’s incomplete song cycle “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,” the last composition Ravel worked on before falling ill with the disease that eventually killed him, rounds out this disc. The French baritone François le Roux is a little thin and wobbly in tone, quite appropriately for the elderly Don Quixote.
In artistic matters, labeling anyone “the greatest” almost always boils down to oversimplification or hyperbole. But it is difficult to argue with Kyle Gann, who wrote that Steve Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.” Reich turns 80 in October, and the Chicago-based group Third Coast Percussion has devoted its latest recording to works spanning his long career. TCP — Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore — describe themselves as “second generation” Reich interpreters, meaning that none of them worked with the composer and all of them came of age when his music was already established in the repertory.
The earliest piece, “Music for Pieces of Wood” (1973), represents Reich at his most elemental. Matthew Duvall of Eighth Blackbird joins TCP, and the instruments they choose for this performance are five slats of purpleheart wood, tuned to different pitches, struck with wooden dowels. The ensemble’s rich resonance, combined with the variety of pitches and shifting dynamics, evokes a kaleidoscopic dithyramb of rare power.
Unlike Reich’s extended works that unfold in continuous phases, “Sextet” (1984) has five distinct movements. TCP, along with pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen, creates the exquisitely enveloping, undulating soundscapes so characteristic of mature Reich with great imagination and finesse. Transitions between movements are imbued with a striking blend of the startling, foreboding and the alluring.
Connors and Martin’s take on the well-known “Nagoya Marimbas” (1994) is very much their own and happily compelling. My favorite performance, though, is of the latest piece, “Mallet Quartet” (2009), which vividly conveys that special Reich sense of several musicians becoming, in an ineffably primal, tribal, mystical way, greater than the sum of their parts. And what’s totally cool is hearing such music realized by another generation of devoted interpreters.