Ravel had written a good deal of music--including such polished works as "Jeux d'eau" and "Pavane pour une infante defunte"--prior to his entering the Prix de Rome competition in 1902 with the cantata "Alcyone." The year 1903 saw him competing again (unsuccessfully--for the fourth consecutive year, in fact) with another work for voice and orchestra, "Alyssa," after completing his magnificent String Quartet.
Perhaps Ravel's cantatas were inferior to those of the 1902-3 prize winners, Andre Caplet and Ayme Kunc, but that hardly justifies three-quarters of a century of neglect of the Ravel entries by publishers and by the recording industry. Bringing to light obscure works of major composers is, after all, one of the things recordings are supposed to be about.
Well, "Alcyone" and "Alyssa" are here at last, on the Rizzoli label (2005, CD), a New York-based division of the Italian book publisher and retailer.
The French-language texts--from Ovid for "Alcyone," from an Irish legend for "Alyssa"--are high-flown affairs that Ravel sets with becoming lack of restraint.
Ravel knew how to make the orchestra surge, sing and sweat at that early stage of his career. But he had no notion of how to make it whisper seductively. The Ravel orchestra and the Ravel style, with their unique combination of brilliance and suggestiveness, were a few years in the offing.
The "Alcyone" orchestra is that of Wagner's "Tristan" wedded to a vocal style out of Bellini, Donizetti, perhaps Meyerbeer, while in "Alyssa" Wagner meets Rimsky-Korsakov (via some Italian excursions). Both could be considered miniature operas, based on 19th-Century ideals, whereas Ravel's two mature operas, "L'Heure espagnole" and "L'Enfant et les sortileges" are wholly original, modern approaches to the medium.
Still, "Alcyone" and "Alyssa" are wonderfully effusive pieces and their recorded debuts are handsomely accomplished. Romanian mezzo-soprano Mariana Nicolesco is the fiery titular protagonist in both, compensating with forcefulness and intensity for a lack of vocal velvet. And she is ably supported by mezzo Nadine Denize and tenor Hein Meens, with Hubert Soudant presiding over the Bamberg Symphony with a firm, if somewhat heavy, hand.
Erato, RCA's French affiliate, is in the process of recording the complete Ravel. Of the numerous releases to date, those of "L'Heure espagnole" (1909) and "L'Enfant et les sortileges" (1925) are outstanding.
Ravel, always at home with the Spanish idiom, had a field day with "L'Heure," a comedy about clocks and cuckolds filled with musical and verbal puns.
The excellent Swiss conductor Armin Jordan, who leads the Nouvelle Orchestre Philharmonique of Paris in "L'Heure" (Erato 7338, CD), has at his disposal a quintet of superior singing actors: mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Laurence, tenors Tibere Raffalli and Michel Senechal, baritones Gino Quilico and bass Francois Loup, who will be remembered as Don Magnifico in the Music Center Opera production of Rossini's "Cenerentola."
Jordan, this time heading his own Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, projects to perfection the subtle wonders of "L'enfant," with its tart orchestration and the wry situations (in Colette's libretto) that ensue when a child is faced with the vengeance of the toys he has mistreated.
The flawless vocal ensemble includes soprano Colette Alliot-Lucaz as the child, and, as a variety of toys, household articles and natural forces, sopranos Elisabeth Vidal and Audrey Michael, mezzo Isabel Garcisanz, Senechal, and baritone Philippe Huttenlocher (Erato 75312, CD).
What is billed as the complete music for solo piano--some recently published, early pieces are in fact missing--is available on a pair of Erato CDs (71570 and 71571): reissues of 1968 tapings by Monique Haas, an efficient, rather ordinary sort of pianist to be entrusted with music so filled with color and fantasy.
The same might be said for Francois-Rene Duchable, soloist in the two Ravel piano concertos on a generously filled Erato CD (75323) that further includes "Sheherazade," tremulously sung by soprano Rachel Yakar, and "Tzigane," dashingly played by violinist Pierre Amoyal. Jordan conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande throughout.
To experience the wonders of Ravel's piano music, listen instead to the gorgeous performances--whimsical, sensuous, monumental, each in its place--by octogenarian Vlado Perlemuter, still active (although mainly as a teacher) in Paris: a pianist whose playing was admired by Ravel and which is preserved on a pair of Nimbus CDs (5000 and 5011). Be forewarned, however, that Nimbus and Perlemuter are averse to retakes. Thus, some scrambled passagework and a few clearly audible clinkers must be tolerated. A small price to pay for--indeed, an inevitable component of--such inspired, idiomatic interpretations.
A more lean-toned, incisive approach to Ravel is taken by Katia and Marielle Labeque in the original piano four-hands edition of "Ma mere l'oye" as well as of Faure's enchanting "Dolly" and Bizet's rollicking "Jeux d'enfants" (Philips 420 159, CD)--the gifted French sister team in their most relaxed and amiable recording to date.
All the Ravel orchestral favorites are combined on a mid-priced RCA "Papillon" release (6522, CD)--"Rapsodie espagnole," "La Valse," "Ma mere l'oye," the "Pavane" and "Bolero": gloriously virtuosic, overheated performances from around 1960 by the Boston Symphony, then the world's greatest French orchestra, under Charles Munch.