Saturday, 6 August 2011


Great to hear Ravel's Boléro (possibly the most famous classical music crescendo) live at the Proms the other night. This is one of those pieces that needs to be played correctly. I'd be the first to admit that it can be quite boring if not performed well. First of all, it has to be done reasonably quickly: most versions are under 15 minutes - Riccardo Muti's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra runs for 17 minutes 9 seconds, which is much too slow. Ideally, it's around 14 minutes. Ravel himself said the tempo mustn't vary at all but, in my opinion, maintaining a steady tempo throughout means the piece just doesn't work. As someone once pointed out, if the conductor does this, the performance actually seem to get slower. For the maximum excitement, the tempo needs to be edged up a little towards the end. The orchestra needs to put energy into the piece and (although it must tax the brass players in particular) sustain all the notes throughout, not allowing them to die away.

Although I haven't bought any CDs for a while, I've collected versions of Boléro since the pre-CD years and currently (at a rough count) have 20 different recordings, including a handful on cassette. Donald Runnicles gave a great performance conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - nice and fast at around 15 minutes, and edging the tempo appropriately. Unfortunately I can only rate it third amongst the recordings I've heard: I'd put Riccardo Chailly's recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw at the very top, mainly for the sheer energy and the way the sound seems to broaden out to a vast climax; and Jean Martinon's with the Orchestre de Paris second, for a wonderfully chaotic, slightly out-of-control rendition: this is one piece that shouldn't sound too controlled.

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