A glance at the list of soloists for this infinitely valuable set should be recommendation enough: Véronique Gens, Sophie Koch, Michael Spyres and Jacques Imbrailo are among the finest singers of French reperoire out there right now.
Then there’s the music history aspect:between 1803 and 1968, the Grand Prix de Rome marked the zenith of composition studies at the Paris Conservatoire. In Maurice Ravel’s time the competition included an elimination round (a fugue and a choral piece), followed by a cantata in the form of an operatic scena.
The entries were judged by a jury which generally favoured expertise and conformity more than originality. Ravel’s association with the “avant-garde” may explain why he never won the coveted Premier Grand Prix, (and the three-year stay at Rome’s Villa Medici).
The Swedish label BIS has put together a set that brings together all the vocal works that Ravel composed for the Prix de Rome – five shorter settings for choir and orchestra and three cantatas (each with three characters taking part in a plot which followed a more or less fixed sequence of introduction, recitative and aria, a duet, a trio and a brief conclusion).
The works had to wait 50 years after Ravel’s death even to be published. And yet listen to the quality of the “Prélude” to Alyssa (1903):
A cantata labelled as “Légende irlandaise” (Irish legend) to a text by Marguerite Coiffier, this is an impassioned, wonderful piece. The Prélude is glorious: emotionally wide-ranging, written with a deft hand. It is also impossible to imagine a finer performance than that of the ONPL (Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire) under Pascal Rophé, and of course, as we have come to expect, BIS's recordng supports the whole impeccably. This is a piece that lost out to a work by Raoul Laparra (who he? I hear you ask).
The tenor Julien Behr (named “Révelation artistique lyrique” by the French Performing Rights association Adami) has just the right voice for Alyssa. There are three characters: Braïzyl, sung by Behr, who is returning to a nocturnal, magical scene populated by fairies and sprites, to meet again the mysterious fairy Alyssa (luxurious casting here in Véronique Gens, as hypnotising as ever), and the ”sword-bearer” Barde, sing by Jacques Imbrailo
Unlike the BIS booklet notes, I'm going to dwell a little on Alyssa. The piece receives less attention than the others; and I note a Gramophone review of another performance that is markedly dismissive of the piece. Yet listen with fresh, innocent (exploring?) ears and a piece of glittering, veiled beauty emerges. Rophé paces this beautifully. The duet is ardent, raising to a climax nterrupted by the arrival of Barde, bearing news of an invasion on Braïzyl’s lands. Ravel tracks Braïzyl’s struggle beautifully. The matter is settled by an appearance od Braïzyl’s deceased father on a cloud, after which Braïzyl takes Earthly matters over the fairy realm: “Sous nos climates, des violetests d’améthyste, des bleuets de saphir font l'Avril éternel!” (In our lands, violets of amethyst and cornflowers of sapphire make April eternal!).
The second cantata we hear is a “scène dramatique” (dramatic scena) to a text by Eugène and Edouard Adenis after Ovid's Metamorphoses, Alcyone. This one failed to win in 1902. Here, our main character (Queen Alcyone, sung by Sophie Koch) has a premonition of the sinking of the King's ship and the King calling out to her from the depths that she confesses to her confidante, Sophrona (Janina Baechle). The music is influenced by two works by Debussy: his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and the String Quartet. There is a beautiful prayer to the Moon and to the Goddess of War, Astarte.
Here's the Prélude to Alcyone:
Alcyone's dream is depicted in.a purely orchestral “descriiption symphonique," as gloriously Impressionistic as one might imagine. The woodwind in this performance are particularly noteworthy in their rendition of the descending phrases, simply beautifully done:
The scene is interrupted by the fervent cries of the ghost (Julien Behr). Koch projects Alcyone's responses to her dream beautifully; the final duet between Koch and Behr (The Spirit fo Ceyx) is ardently done.
For all of Alcyone’s drama, I find Alyssa the more compelling piece. The final cantata on the first disc is the “scène lyrique” Myrrha (1901), heard here with a star-studded line-up: Vannina Sanroni as Myrrha (a Greek slave), Michael Spyres as Sardanapale (whom she loves), and Jacques Imbrailo as Bélésis. The text is by Fernand Beissier, after Byron's play Sardanapalus. Here's the searingly dramatic beginning, with the Pays de la Loire orchestra on top form. (follow the link to hear the MP3).
Michael Spyres is one of the finest tenors around today, most recntly heard in Berlioz in Strasbourg. We can hear the heroism in his voice in this passage, where his character, Sardanapale, reflects on the pyre that awaits him:
There follows an absolutely glowing duet between Sardanapale and Myrrha, with Vannina Santoni and Sypres both on absolutely scorching form. Here it iis, coming in at just under 10 minutes:
In the final section , Myrrha and Sardanapale's way is blocked by the High Priest Bélésis (who channels Baal), Ravel conveying the confrontation with much drama. Received wisdom has it thalet Caplet's cantata, that won that particular year, is far finer - but do hear Ravel on his own merits. In the hands of the present performers, this remains a fine work, and while the Caplet is a strong piece, to my ears Ravel wins out anyway. Here is an excerpt of the Caplet (Scene One) from the Marco Polo performance. It contains many beauties - perhaps see which you prefer! ...
I have added a purchase link to the Marco Polo disc below. Amazon Prime customers might like to note that streaming of this disc is free for them: if you are a member, follow this link and all should be well.
Disc Two is populated by five short works: a total duration of 24 minutes, with three of the works coming in under four minutes. For these works, we have the Chopir of the ONPL and two soloists, Mathys Lagier (tenor, L'Aurore) and Clarisse Dalles (soprano, the remaining four pieces).
The dawn does rather lend itself to Impressionism, and so it is here, an anonymous text speaking about the glories of this time of day, while the solo tenor hails the rising day (“Jour levant”). Lagier is an up and coming singer who has previously sung with Laurence Equilbey's accentus choir. Ravel's piece might seem luxurious of texture, but ends with a remarkably muscular passage:
The next piece is more ambitious still: La Nuit (1902). Structurally, the piece mirrors L'Aurore, though: a chorus that sets the scene (here “Nuit bienfaisante!” - Benevolent night!) to a solo passage (Clarisse Dalles, winner of the “Jeune Espoir” prize at the Concours International de la Mélodie de Gordes), and a final section (here brief) where solo and choir join together:
No missing the orietnalism of Les Bayadères (The Temple Dancers, 1900, to a text by Henri Cazalis). As Gérard Condé points out in his booklet notes, this is a rather conventional piece, much indebted to Massenet (or even Bizet and Saint-Saëns). It is delightful, nonetheless, and how can one resist those Eastern pipings from the woodwind?:
The lightness and optimism of Matinée de Provence (Morning in Provence) is irresistable; it appears inone of the very finest performances on the set, too, the choir light and brilliant:
Finally, Tout et lumière (text Victor Hugo, All is light, 1901). Dalles absolutely shines here in her solo passage; it is the perfect close to this remarkable set:
This release is an urgent recommendation for all who love Ravel or French Impressionism; a rousing call to all Francophiles, in fact. This set should be showered with awards - maybe it will be!Ravel Cantates pour le Prix de Rome (BIS)Prix de Rome Cantatas (Marco Polo)