There is a lot to be said for French music performed by the French! An obvious point, but one belied in the history of recording by the traditionally iffy condition of French orchestras and the expatriate nature of great French conductors. In recent years, though, with cultural cross-fertilization a mere Internet click away, Francophone orchestras have begun to stand tall for the sheer excellence of their playing and set convincingly before listeners the special blend of sensuality and Cartesian lucidity that in so many ways makes France French. Gallic orchestras, one might say, are recapturing their musical patrimony through excellence. Indeed, the sort of virtuosity and precision to be found on Radio France these days would make George Szell and his Clevelanders proud. And now there is the French-speaking Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, under Emmanuel Krivine: beautifully disciplined and all of a piece.
The special authenticity of orchestras performing music from their own culture is to be found in the little inner details of accent and articulation. Krivine and his musicians appear fascinated with each wriggle in Ravel’s world. Coloristic figurations other orchestras would play on automatic pilot suddenly mean something here. Every woodwind appears to have its own special accent and personality. Even in the snare drum, flurries of atmospheric notes acquire more than a background purpose. and flickers of light illuminate more than just rotating shards in the kaleidoscope. Krivine’s approach emphasizes a sort of Toscaninian precision, or at least I think so. Despite pleasant words written about the Luxembourg Philharmonie, the auditorium as recorded here sounds nearly as crackly as NBC’s notorious Studio 8H—beautifully balanced—but dry as a radiator. The sound itself is good, with an amazingly solid bass line, but the acoustic picture is so flat as to destroy any real sensuality being sought. But taken on its own terms, this analytical close-up is quite fascinating.
La Valse and especially Une Barque sur l’océan have a lot more going on within than is normally audible, and Krivine’s precision pays real dividends. I thought more of both pieces after hearing this performance. Shéhérazade suffers a bit, though, from the sheer lack of voluptuous appeal. Karine Deshayes sings beautifully, but I’d judge her to be one of the less-voluptuous mezzos around. Her performance does nothing to dislodge Janet Baker, who not only managed the French accent in her classic recording, but also contributed that special timbre of voice that identified her immediately, no matter which note was being sung. And someone looking for a real wallow should turn to Renée Fleming, still in fresh and lush timbre, whose sensuality, flirtatiousness, and feeling for her own charisma play beautifully into Ravel’s hands. (Steven Kruger)