All products and recordings are chosen independently by our editorial team. This review contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.

A guide to Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and its best recordings

Frolicking nymphs and rapacious pirates capture Julian Haylock’s attention in Ravel’s sumptuous ballet

A guide to Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and its best recordings
Published: April 8, 2022 at 1:43 pm
Want to try our magazine? Save over 40% when you subscribe to BBC Music Magazine today!

Experiencing the deeply sensuous soundscape of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé reminds us of the crucial impact made by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes around the turn of the last century.

Advertisement

The 20 seasons Diaghilev presented from 1909-29 featured an astonishing array of creative talent, including dancers Anna Pavlova, Ida Rubinstein and Alicia Markova, dancer-chorographers Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine, and set/costume designers Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Coco Chanel.

For many, Daphnis et Chloé is Ravel’s supreme masterpiece – a glorious reversal of standard dramatic procedures. When there is little going on to drive the plot forward, Ravel tends to stay languorously in the moment, yet when things spring into action, as in the pirates’ abduction of Chloé, he refuses to take the musical bait. Perhaps this, after all, is Daphnis et Chloé’s most groundbreaking revelation.

When did Ravel compose Daphnis et Chloé?

Ravel was part of Diaghilev’s plans from the start. Shortly after the first Ballets Russes season had got underway, Ravel was in ‘talks’ with Fokine regarding Daphnis, based on an ancient Greek pastoral as realised by French writer Jacques Amyot (1513-93). The problem was that Fokine couldn’t speak a word of French and Ravel, by his own admission, could ‘only swear in Russian’. Yet by the end of an ‘insane week’, during which Ravel worked through the night on several occasions, a basic scenario had been thrashed out.

Diaghilev had originally intended Daphnis et Chloé to form the centrepiece of the 1910 season, and although the first piano draft was ready by the beginning of May, this was already far too late, leaving the door wide open for Igor Stravinsky to score his first great success with The Firebird. This seems to have inspired Ravel to get a move on and by the end of the summer he was hard at work on the orchestration. Yet a year later, shortly after Stravinsky had laid down a second musical gauntlet with Petrushka, Ravel was still struggling with the final part of Daphnis et Chloé, which was now transformed into a dazzling sequence of metrical ingenuity. The orchestration was completed on 5 April 1912, just two months before the planned premiere on 8 June.

But Ravel’s problems were not over. Fokine, as choreographer, wanted to base his ideas around ancient Greek drawings, whereas Ravel tended towards a romanticised Gallic ideal – and Léon Bakst’s sets and costumes chimed more with Fokine’s historical vision than the voluptuousness of Ravel’s music. Fokine was becoming increasingly difficult to work with following several clashes with Diaghilev, who hardly endeared himself to Ravel when, having heard the piano version in rehearsal, he came close to cancelling the whole thing – the planned four performances were reduced to two.

What's the story behind Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé?

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé was inspired by one of the most popular novels of Ancient Greek literature. Written in either the second or third century AD, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe trod new – and, for some, morally questionable – ground in depicting developing feelings of love and sexual attraction between young people, and is the author’s only known work. Longus may possibly have been a Roman who lived on Lesbos, where his tale is set, and who chose to write in Greek rather than Latin, but that is speculation rather than established fact – we know next-to-nothing about him.

His youthful lovers, however, have certainly made their mark on the literary and artistic world. Directly or indirectly, Daphnis and Chloe have influenced literary works by the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe and George Sand, while the multitude of artists who were inspired to depict their charms has ranged from Bordone in the 16th century to Chagall in the 20th.

Ravel, meanwhile, is by no means the sole composer to have fallen under their pastoral spell. In 1747, for instance, a starry cast presented the premiere of Boismortier’s Daphnis et Chloé at Paris’s Académie Royale de Musique. Philosopher-cum-composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau also began an opera with the same title, leaving it incomplete at his death in 1778, alas. And in 1860, Offenbach conducted his new operetta Daphnis et Chloé in Paris; though in this instance, the plot strays some distance away from Longus’s original.

Ravel's score for Daphnis et Chloé

At least the orchestral musicians proved up to Ravel’s not inconsiderable demands. Despite being scored for vast forces – including a wind machine and off-stage chorus – the work’s ingenious scoring was brought pulsatingly to life under the inspired conductorship of Pierre Monteux. Yet notwithstanding a starry cast that included Nijinsky (whose suggestive movements many considered too overtly erotic) and Tamara Karsavina, several dancers struggled (especially in the notorious final dance) to keep in time – the foot-sore members of the corps de ballet apparently resorted to chanting ‘Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev’ to help keep them in 5/4 time.

3 of the best recordings of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé

Netherlands Radio Choir; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/ Yannick Nézet-Séguin

BIS-1850 (hybrid CD/SACD)

This splendid disc proves again that with Ravel’s orchestral music you go pretty much all the way just by following the instructions on the packet. In this performances of Daphnis et Chloé Yannick Nézet-Séguin is scrupulous to an unusual degree in obeying the composer’s markings, and especially the little crescendo bursts which might seem, on paper, to be in danger of breaking up the continuity of phrases, but which in practice add life and energy to them.

The playing throughout is of the highest class, from the first horn’s apparently relaxed top Fs (Martin van de Merwe may be going purple in the face, but there’s no audible sign of it) to the vibrato-free flutes that Ravel himself wrote for, the clarinets’ piano playing in the furiously fast ‘Danse générale’, and the chorus’s impeccable tuning in their a cappella section. The Pavane is tender, elegant and unforced. One correction to the booklet notes: the first performance of this orchestral version was given by Henry Wood in Manchester on 27 February 1911. (Review by Roger Nichols)

We gave this recording the full five stars when we reviewed it

New England Conservatory Chorus & Alumni Chorus, Boston

09026 61846 2 ADD (1955)

One of the earliest stereo recordings, Munch’s 1955 Daphnis still sounds terrific; a certain constriction, by CD standards, is but a small drawback. The performance itself is marvellously alive to both the colours and structure of Ravel’s greatest score. The work sends hi-fi buffs into overdrive; Dutoit’s 1980s Decca version quickly became a CD demonstration disc. But Munch remains a must, even minus the Roussel filler which more generously accompanied this Daphnis on its previous CD outing. (review by Keith Potter)

We gave this recording the full five stars when we reviewed it

Montreal SO & Chorus/Charles Dutoit

458 605-2 Reissue (1981-4)

Dutoit’s is the original and best digital Daphnis. This electrifying performance offered an astounding experience, musically and sonically, when first released on LP in the early Eighties. With the introduction of CD, it quickly became the demonstration disc par excellence, giving many of us our first insights into the potential of the new medium back in 1983.

Since then, I’ve listened to Dutoit’s thrilling account, one of the most seductive and hedonistic records ever made, countless times. Having heard Decca’s 24-bit reissue, my conviction that this is one of the great sound recordings of all time is only strengthened – a matchless interpretation, beautifully played and engineered. Only Yoel Levi’s Atlanta Symphony recording from Telarc approaches the realism and brilliance of Decca’s engineering, but Levi’s performance is never in contention beside Dutoit’s. The expected Ravel fillers are also benchmark material. No-one with ears and a CD player should be without this disc! (review by Michael Jameson)

We gave this recording the full five stars when we reviewed it

Advertisement

Top image: Stage design for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé by M. Ravel (Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris), 1912. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Authors

Julian HaylockJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Julian Haylock is the former editor of CD Review and International Piano Magazines and reviews of CD Classics Magazine. He is also the author of biographies on Mahler, Rachmaninov and Puccini, and co-author of the Haylock and Waugh pocket guides to Classical Music on CD and Opera Music on CD.

Sponsored content