Ravel, Debussy, Britten

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COMPOSERS: Britten,Debussy,Ravel
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Shéhérazade; La damoiselle élue; Les illuminations
PERFORMER: Sylvia McNair (soprano), Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano); Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston SO/Seiji Ozawa
CATALOGUE NO: 446 682-2
Ravel’s oriental fantasy seems an odd choice for Sylvia McNair to tackle, given that it demands reserves of power and vocal colour she does not really possess. This is a small-scale, whispered account, too reliant on breathy crooning, with often no proper core to the sound, and suggesting little of the terror, delight and excitement of the text, only a generalised childlike sense of wonder.


If Les illuminations suits her better, that’s partly because her childlike manner is more apt here, even if the teenage Rimbaud who penned the poems was an enfant of an unusually sauvage kind. The work’s occasional menace and desperation are absent from her performance, but here she’s crisper in delivery, with a more dynamic approach to the music, which even so at times takes her to her vocal limits.


In the early Debussy cantata, it’s Susan Graham’s powerfully expressive Narrator that identifies what McNair’s Blessed Damozel lacks. Seiji Ozawa and his Bostonians convey the gentle sensuousness of the music, and its chaste eroticism, to a nicety, having earlier managed the detail and finesse of Ravel’s enriched orchestral writing in vivid splashes of multi-coloured gorgeousness. George Hall