D’Indy: Orchestral works, Vol. 4

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphonie Italienne; Poème des rivages, Op. 77
PERFORMER: Iceland SO/Rumon Gamba

On Christmas Day, 1869, the 18-year-old d’Indy, on his Italian tour, went to Mass in St Peter’s, Rome. His diary for the day includes the words ‘that excellent Mendelssohn’ and ‘I’m going to start the Symphony’. He completed it in 1872 and the Scherzo became his first orchestral work to be performed, by the conductor Jules Pasdeloup. But the general feeling was that the other movements were too long (a first movement called ‘Rome’ might, understandably, not err on the short side) and the work lay in neglect until 2008. There are longueurs, for sure, but the level of inspiration is far higher than I was expecting. Mendelssohn hovers over the Scherzo, and the triumphant A major ending of the Finale recalls that of the Scottish Symphony (what a friend of mine used to call ‘the porridge passage’). D’Indy’s ending is livelier and possibly more relevant to what’s gone before.
Rumon Gamba plays the work straight, without fuss, and the results are excellent. But in the Poème des rivages of 50 years later, this decision not to sculpt the music, as Georges Prêtre does masterfully in his 1985 EMI recording, means we listeners have to work fairly hard to make sense of d’Indy’s by now far more sophisticated harmonies and syntax. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Poème lies on the cusp between the bleak Third Symphony and the delightful works of the composer’s last decade, and the ambiguities should not perhaps be too sensibly straightened out. Certainly Gamba’s ‘tranquillement’ opening achieves a magic and mystery that Prêtre has no time for. Roger Nichols