Charlotte Gardner 2009-03-20
Simon Rattle says it's been a particular joy to bring Ravel's music to the Berlin Philharmonic, and this disc is a joy for the listener too. Ravel's Gallic whimsy sits enchantingly well in their sound.
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a one-act opera, set to a libretto by the French novelist Colette. It contains all the classic elements of fairytale: the inanimate springing to life, then fear and danger which are finally dissipated by love. A little boy, shut in his room by his mother, wreaks his fury on his furniture only for it, along with the plants and animals of the garden, to terrifyingly spring into life to object. Rattle has a long association with the opera, conducting it to great acclaim in Liverpool in 1974 as a nineteen year old, and then to great acclaim at Glyndebourne in 1987. Even without such a track record though, it would have taken a peculiar talent to turn out a dud performance for this disc, given the line-up of singers involved: Magdalena Kožená as the child heads up a cast including Nathalie Stutzmann, Sophie Koch, François le Roux and José van Dam. The score is typical Ravel, mixing elements such as ragtime, 18th-century dance, and soothing lushness. You’d expect the Berlin Phil to bring off the last of these with aplomb, but the ragtime of ''How's your mug'' has a jaunty irreverence, and the anger of the animals as they turn on the child is full of jagged, passionate fury. Kozena sings a vocally excellent and dramatically convincing Boy, whilst Koch and le Roux perform the meowed cats' duet to its feline best. Ma Mere L’Oye equally shimmers and sparkles in all the right places, but I’ll make no apology for particularly enjoying the slower movements, for it's here that the Berlin Phil's signature velvety richness produces that special musical X factor. Just listen to ''Le jardin féerique''. Their employment of rubato and a slower-than-average tempo produces a heady languor that sets Ravel’s magical garden firmly in the magical hour of blossom-scented dusk. Quite wonderful.