Sounds of 30s Ravel G Major Sabata 1001 Nights
Bollani / Chailly
7.5/10

I really like this album. I was less impressed with Bollani and Chailly’s other outing, an overtly jazzy all-Gershwin CD featuring Bollani’s performance of Rhapsody in Blue, which I thought was rather less successful than the comparable version by the young Benjamin Grosvenor. The Sounds of the 30s CD, however, opens with a coruscating reading of Ravel’s G Major Concerto (which is also on the Grosvenor in another excellent performance) which Bollani plays absolutely straight, and with precision, ably assisted by Chailly’s insightful orchestral ripieno. Rather than its circus character, Bollani and Chailly manage to jointly catch the plaintiveness and fantasy of the work, which they emphasise very much to the music’s advantage. They take the slow movement at a good unsentimental pace and it possesses a quality of Satie-esque pastoralism. In the grotesqueries of the final movement the Gewandhaus Orchestra get to strut their stuff—the clarinet playing, in particular, is riveting.

Up to this point, the CD is good but not outstanding—both Bavouzet’s and Grosvenor’s Ravel G major Concerto are arguably better than this one. It is the remainder of the disc that gets my vote, starting with the astringent piano version of Stravinsky’s ironic, almost terse, Tango, played with almost military verve by Bollani. He continues with jazz piano solo versions of Kurt Weill’s Berlin dark-end-of-the-street alienatedness: Surabaya Johnny and the Tango Ballade. The contrast of this bleak music with Ravel’s supremely elegant concerto is pointed. Then—a masterstroke—we hear Stravinsky’s Tango again, this time in a Symphonies of Wind-like garb, orchestrated by Felix Guenther. It simultaneously returns us to sanguinity, and provides an ironic detachment that beautifully anticipates the half-hour closing work: Victor de Sabata’s Suite, Mille e una Notte, “Thousand and One Nights”. Slightly annoyingly, the seven sections of the Suite are not banded so one has to pay close attention to follow the various dance-movements. Fortunately, this romp of a score is wonderfully lucid, colliding, as the liner notes point out, Fred Astaire and Richard Strauss. I did know that Victor de Sabata was a composer, in addition to being one of the most remarkable mid-20th century conductors, but the only Sabata works I’d heard before were big, earnest, orchestral poems on a download-only Hyperion disc. They did not prepare me for the playful, memorable, Hollywoodiness of this score. Mille e una Notte is a ravishing, witty, work—it reminded me somewhat of Walton’s Façade Suites, in fact. His skill as an orchestrator is writ large in the music; it is almost as if he wanted to trump Ferdie Grofé’s Americana scores. The music is, simply, a joy.

To be honest, this is not the kind of CD that changes your life, but it is exactly the sort of imaginative program that you might well want to listen to often, on the one hand for its unusualness, and on the other for the sheer fun to be had.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.