Wilson’s Part Magical, Part Perfunctory Ravel

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

What to make of this release? The music has been recorded a million times, superbly well. John Wilson’s Sinfonica of London is yet another “pickup” orchestra in a city that has far more than it needs. It boasts some excellent first-desk players and responds eagerly to Wilson’s robust direction. The album cover describes this release as a “premier recording of original ballets,” which is true to the extent that Wilson has gone back to original sources and noticed that Ravel’s manuscripts do not always conform, in various details (mostly unimportant) to the published scores, especially in Ma Mère l’Oye. Still, I wouldn’t discount this aspect offhand: Ravel was the king of precision, and getting the basic text right is important and valuable. For that reason, serious Ravelians will want to hear these performances, which are mostly very good.

On the negative side, we have a hasty and metronomic La Valse, lacking all sense of both sensuality and, in the final pages, danger. Alborada del Gracioso fails to project the necessary swagger in its more eruptive moments. Wilson seems to equate “loud” with “fast,” and tends to run on autopilot when the music’s temperature rises. On the positive side, Ma Mère l’Oye gets a sensitive reading, much better paced than the two works just mentioned. The Pavane is unkillable despite its title, the Valses nobles benefits (as La Valse does not) from Wilson’s directness and ear for textural clarity, while Boléro may be the best performance on the disc. It sports real character in the playing of its many solos, and seductive phrasing of its two principal themes. Wilson deserves credit for making a warhorse sound special without being merely perverse–and in Boléro that’s no mean achievement.

I do wish, though, that Wilson let the brass (piccolo trumpet especially) do their thing at the last full statement of Boléro’s big tune. So many conductors these days prefer a mellow, sonorous blend where Ravel clearly intends a harder, more gleaming edge in the orchestra’s upper register, and this despite the fact that the engineering, as already suggested, is clear and bold.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Martinon (Warner); Ozawa (DG); Boulez (DG and Sony)

    La Valse; Ma Mère l'Oye (complete ballet); Alborada del gracioso; Pavane for a Dead Princess; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Boléro

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