London Symphony Orchestra - Ravel - Bolero

Boléro is ‘an orchestral score without music,’ reckoned Ravel. ‘There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.’

Such a careful description does not acknowledge the hypnotic power that has made the piece so popular. When the LSO and Valery Gergiev performed it in London at the end of 2009 a recording for LSO Live was a must. Unusually, a video was made too, and here it is. This is an exclusive HD version of the video and has never been made available before.

As Ravel implied, Boléro is essentially a study in orchestration, and this filmed performance by Christopher Swann goes some way to illustrating what that means. In the opening bars he intercuts the instruments that put down the elements of the piece – the barely audible snare drum, the solo flute and accompanying pizzicato strings. It’s the beginning of a montage designed to reveal details of Ravel’s orchestration by stealth, cutting to an instrument just for a second or two but never settling anywhere for long. Eventually the camera is cutting between groups of instruments as they inexorably multiply. Only towards the end does it pan round to reveal the sheer size of the forces on stage. How Ravel choreographed them all into such a massive orchestration remains an extraordinary feat.

Such is the mechanistic nature of the music that Boléro might almost be described as a piece for orchestra without conductor. In this performance Gergiev is indisputably there but, as with all great performances of Boléro, this is not principally the conductor’s gig (whatever might have been accomplished in rehearsal). When Ravel directed the first performance in 1930 he is said to have confined himself to brief, precise gestures, letting the inner tension of the music speak for itself. Gergiev does likewise at the beginning, setting the infernal rhythm in motion and communicating a kind of contained ecstasy to his players. But as the famous crescendo builds his direction becomes more characteristically energetic.

The camera gets close to the musicians and spies on them from some interesting angles, conveying what it might actually be like to sit with them. It’s a pleasure to be in the middle of the woodwind section as the sound builds, and to watch leader Roman Simovic digging into his violin as the strings get their turn with the famous theme. The audience is visible as standing silhouettes at the end so we know they were there all along. Their roar of approval confirms what it was like to be there.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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