In 1910, Ravel was commissioned by Paris’s Théâtre de l’Odéon to provide the incidental music for a new play by the Lebanese writer Chekri Ganem. It was based on The Romance of Antar, a 12th-century Arabic epic about the exploits of the pre-Islamic poet and knight Antarah ibn Shaddad, and the source of the score was to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, which had begun life as a programmatic symphony in 1868 on the same theme.
Ravel made cavalier cuts and reorderings in his rescorings and also imported much of the witches’ sabbath scene from Rimsky’s opera Mlada, as well as adding short interludes and links of his own – sometimes in his own musical style, sometimes pastiches of Rimsky. The whole score was reconstructed for the 2014 concert performances in Lyon that were the source of this recording, with Ganem’s play replaced by a new, pithier text by the author Amin Maalouf, who has also written the librettos for all of Kaija Saariaho’s operas. Malouf has retold the Antar legend “guided by the emotions suggested by the music”, he says, and most of his words are delivered by the actor André Dussollier as melodrama over the music, although sometimes it would have been better to hear Ravel’s contribution more clearly.
There is, however, something appropriately exotic about the cocktail of styles. Rimsky’s original already mixes Russian nationalism with a first shot at the brand of orientalism he would eventually perfect in his finest orchestral work, Scheherazade, while on to that Ravel layers his very French sensibility and exquisite textural imagination.
Ravel’s own perfumed foray into the world of Arabic legend, the three orchestral songs of his Shéhérazade, is the obvious pairing for this. Leonard Slatkin’s performances of both works with the Lyon orchestra haven’t always got the luminosity they need, and Isabelle Druet isn’t quite the de luxe mezzo needed for Shéhérazade, but this is a useful first recording of what is an intriguing historical curiosity.