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Music for the Theatre, Volume 1
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L'Arlésienne incidental music (original version) (1872) [25.18]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Op. 60 (1917) [33.56]
Basel Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
rec. KKL (Culture and Convention Centre, Lucerne), Switzerland, March 2004
BMG ARTE NOVA 82876 61103 2 [59.14]



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Christopher Hogwood first made his mark internationally with "period" performances of Mozart and such. No doubt many listeners still reflexively think of him as an early-music maven. In fact, his Decca discography includes successful performances ranging from Gounod to Stravinsky. More recently, for Arte Nova, he has continued to explore the concert music of the twentieth century. The planned survey of "Music for the Theatre", of which the current album is the first instalment, promises to delve further into compositions of the nineteenth century.

Hogwood does a fetching job with the Bourgeois gentilhomme music. The Basel orchestra's woodwinds, perky and attentive in their section playing, are distinctive soloists as well. The oboe phrases the wind-accompanied melody of the Overture sensitively, with long-breathed warmth; the flute inflects the Menuett with grace. At times, you may feel the music's humor is held in abeyance. The Overture's deadpan start doesn't suggest that the Molière play to follow is a comedy. The trumpet and piano licks in Der Fechtmeister, dashing and virtuosic as they are, lack a sense of affectionate parody. But other passages, conversely, benefit from being played straight. The Entrance of Cleonte assumes a nice ceremonial grandeur here, and the "Lully chorale" movement is fervent.

The Bizet selections are drawn from the original incidental score rather than the familiar orchestral concert suites, which may confuse some of us as our favorites turn up in the "wrong" order. Here, Hogwood's early-music background serves him less well. His penchant for clipped articulations and brisk tempi, executed by a  smallish ensemble, leaves a lightweight overall impression save in a few tutti passages; the Prélude's concluding paragraph, for example, throbs vibrantly. The great lyrical melodies - in the first Entr'acte and Mélodrame - sing unsentimentally, but it would not have been amiss to lean into them with more feeling, or to allow the alto saxophone's peculiar timbre its head; here it's restrained and clarinettish. The woodwinds, once again, provide the best moments: the clarinet's wistful reprise of the "intermezzo" theme in Mélodrame II, and the affecting recap of the Prélude theme in the closing Entr'acte.

The reproduction is mostly vivid, but the solo violin, anaemic to begin with, emerges with a wheezy sort of  synthesized harmonium tone, which rather spoils the chamber version of Bizet's adagietto. The CD leaflet incorrectly gives a program timing of 61.14; the timing in the headnote is the correct one.

Stephen Francis Vasta




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