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French Music for the Stage

Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Chandos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0
CHAN 20151_Auber

French Music for the Stage
Delibes: Le Roi s’amuse; Massenet: Espada; plus overtures by Auber, Boieldieu and Ambroise Thomas
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 20151   78:40 mins

My doubts over this disc have nothing whatever to do with the performance, which displays the splendid conjunction of subtlety and élan we have come to expect from these performers. It concerns the music itself, in which the entertaining is less splendidly conjoined with the nondescript. One of Pierre Boulez’s many challenging remarks was that after Rameau there had been no French tradition, merely Berlioz. If one is looking for support of this proposition, the overtures by Auber and particularly Boieldieu recorded here provide it in spades. Over half a century ago, Martin Cooper was noting that with Auber ‘the purely melodic interest is generally small.’ As for Boieldieu, after joining the majority of the jury that condemned Berlioz’s Prix de Rome offering La Mort de Cléopâtrein 1829, he complained to the composer that ‘you refuse to write like everybody else’ – so presumably that was his own intention. The fact that the three consecutive overtures concerned are all in D major doesn’t help.

While I stand by my previous description of Massenet’s Espada as ‘processed cheese’ (Christmas 2020), the disc is worth buying for the music by Ambroise Thomas and Delibes. Thomas did himself no favours later in life by ‘cancelling’ Franck, Fauré, Bizet and others, but he had a strong melodic gift and a fine ear for orchestral sound. Delibes’s incidental music to Le Roi s’amuse, with its passing modal inflections and abundant charm, provides the undoubted highlight of the disc. Quel musicien!


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Read more reviews of the latest Massenet recordings

Roger Nichols