RAVEL:  Piano Concerto in G  (Marguerite Long, Lamoureux Orch/Maurice Ravel).  Concerto for the Left Hand (Paul Wittgenstein/Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Bruno Walter).  Boléro (Lamoureux Orch/Maurice Ravel).   Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet (Gwendolen Mason, harp; Robert Murcie, flute; Haydn P. Draper, clarinet/Maurice Ravel cond.
URANIA URN 22.126  (F) (ADD)  TT:  61:53

The relatively obscure Italian label Urania (is there a connection with Urania of old?) has issued this compilation of recordings conducted by Maurice Ravel.  Some feel Ravel did not conduct  these recordings of either Concerto in G or Boléro.  The late conductor Antonio de Almeida has said  Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas Branco had told him he had conducted the 1930 recording of the Piano Concerto and that Albert Wolff had conducted Boléro. But there is proof that Ravel did indeed conduct  both recordings. Wolff was involved to the extent that he had rehearsed Boléro, but Ravel conducted  the recording. Freitas apparently made a recording of Boléro  issued on Westminster but long out-of-print; it is said that his performance took an unbelievable 18:20, almost four minutes longer than most. Ravel once described Boléro as "a 17 minute crescendo," surprising as his own recording takes just 16:10, but still is longer than any other except Freitas. Arturo Toscanini gave the American premiere with the New York Philharmonic November 14, 1929; his brisk tempo angered Ravel who wanted the music to be a slow, inexorable buildup of tension. And it is just that, beginning with a soft rythmic pattern that increases in volume and intensity  (but never in tempo) until the roaring  climax  (with snarling brass and tam-tam smashes)  made even more volatile in the last pages by changing from the key of C to the key of E. 

A boléro is "a lively Spanish dance, in 3/4 time...accompanied by castanets and sometimes singing."  This description does not fit Ravel's work of that name;  Ravel's is in 3/4 time, could hardly be called "lively" and  there are no castanets or  singing.  Boléro was composed in 1928 for dancer Ida Rubinstein who gave the premiere in Paris November 22, 1928 with Walter Straram conducting. The famous dancer performed it on a table, assisted by 20 other dancers. Another famous "dance performance" is a truncated version performed by George Raft in the 1934 film Boléro.

 This first-ever recording of Boléro was made for Polydor in 1930 and features the Lamoureux Orchestra. The matrice listing do not indicate which takes of each of the four sides was used—and I imagine there were many.  Boléro consists of a 16-bar tune first played by the flute, then by bassoon, E-flat clarinet, oboe d'amore, muted trumpet, tenor saxophone, followed by other instruments solo and in combination. In this recording there are some strange accents in the bassoon, E-flat clarinet and trombone statements.  As the composer was conducting he must have approved, but I've never heard it played that way in any other performance.  And the playing is mediocre; either intonation is suspect or there were unsteady disk speeds during the recording—probably a combination of both. Dynamic range is limited as one would expect, but the sound is remarkably clear considering the vintage.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G was written for Marguerite Long who premiered it in Paris January 14, 1932 and made this recording shortly thereafter. It is a superb, stylish performance. Although it has been said that Ravel was not a very good conductor, he manages to handle the tempo changes and accents of the music admirably. The transfer from the original 78s is superb (the technicians are not identified); both the Concerto and Boléro are heard to greater effect on this CD than they are on the Pearl CD containing both (GEMM 9927).  

The Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) who had lost his right arm in World War I. Wittgenstein also commissioned concertos for the left hand from Franz Schmidt, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Serge Prokofiev.  It seems his ability as a left-handed pianist was rather limited; he never attempted Prokofiev's Concerto No. 4. Wittgenstein made no commercial recording of Ravel's concerto. Here we have a live performance recorded February 20, 1937, with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. It is far removed from the brilliance of the best of other recordings (Fleisher, Katchen, Françoise, Ousset). From the beginning, Wittgenstein is tentative and insecure with a final cadenza that is a near-disaster. This performance is solely of historic interest.

Also on the CD is another fascinating recording, Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet recorded in London in 1930 according to the notes accompanying the CD, or in London in 1923 according to the outer CD jewel box label. I'm sure 1930 is the correct date; otherwise it would have been an acoustic recording and this obviously is early electric. The composer is listed as conductor, strange to have this music directed by anyone;  this music usually is performed without conductor/director—perhaps this lends some kind of authenticity to this performance

R.E.B. (Dec. 2000)