Bizet: Symphony in C; L’arlésienne Suite No. 1; L’arlésienne Suite No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Bizet
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphony in C; L’arlésienne Suite No. 1; L’arlésienne Suite No. 2
PERFORMER: French Radio National Orchestra, RPO/Thomas Beecham
CATALOGUE NO: CDM 5 67231 2 ADD Reissue (1959, 1956)
It is somewhat unfortunate for Josep Pons and the Granada City Orchestra that their new release coincides with a reissue of identical repertoire from Thomas Beecham. It says much for the Spanish orchestra (founded only in 1989) that its technically impressive playing compares well, but at its least inspired it is functional rather than (as with Beecham) refined. In particular, Pons’s approach to the Symphony – composed by Bizet as a student exercise and then laid aside to be premiered 60 years after his death – is on the ponderous side, whereas Beecham captures its mercurial nature to a nicety. The modern sound is immediate, however, with an appealing resonance, whereas Beecham’s French orchestra (whose intonation and articulation are not above suspicion) is arguably too large for the work and recorded in a swimmy, over-resonant acoustic.

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Turning to L’arlésienne, Beecham is back home with his Royal Philharmonic on top form, and the results are about as close to a benchmark as they come: his combination of the sweetly delicate and the astringent make him a non-pareil among Bizet conductors. Even the potentially glutinous Intermezzo – sometimes delivered by Italian tenors with the words of the Agnus Dei tastelessly tacked on – is done with restraint, and the pianissimos he achieves are magical. The woodwind solos (and what a formidable line-up the RPO had in 1956) are a special delight. George Hall