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TORTELIER'S FRENCH BONBONS: Works by Hérold, Gounod, Thomas, Massenet, Adam, Chabrier, Auber, Offenbach and Maillart   BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier   Chandos CHAN 9765 [75' 08'']

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If Louis Frémaux made the CBSO the best French orchestra outside France in the 1970s, Yan Pascal Tortelier has been instigating a similar transformation in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic. Having made distinguished Chandos recordings of works by such diverse French composers as Messiaen, Roussel, Lalo, Dutilleux, Chausson and Boulanger, it is good to see the BBC Philharmonic under their principal conductor tackling the lighter side of the Gallic repertoire. This is Beecham territory (a fact acknowledged by the use of the word "bonbons" in the title of the disc) and if there is an occasional want of Beecham flair and charm in some of the phrasing, the Chandos release more than makes up for it in the high standard of the orchestral playing, the excellent recording quality and the unflagging sense of fun and enjoyment in music-making demonstrated by the BBC Phil and Tortelier.

The disc begins with a sovereign account of Ferdinand Hérold's boisterous Zampa Overture and ends with a suitably swaggering version of Chabrier's "Joyeuse marche". There is a pleasing mix of the familiar (Massenet's Méditation from "Thaïs", Offenbach's Barcarolle from "The Tales of Hoffman" and Gounod's sardonic "Funeral march of a marionette"), the less familiar (Auber's witty overture to "Le Cheval de bronze" and the charming Gavotte from Ambroise Thomas's "Mignon") and the downright unfamiliar (Aimé Louis Maillart's melodramatic overture to "Les Dragons de Villars"). The CD is a well-chosen selection of overtures interspersed with shorter items, all of which Tortelier keeps moving at a cracking pace so that there is no hint of indulgence in the performances. If the BBC orchestra doesn't always sound particularly "French" (Willi Boskovsky with the Monte Carlo orchestra would be the other side of the coin from Tortelier's interpretations!), there are gains to be had from a more "cosmopolitan" approach, not least in the suave sophistication of the playing (the horns in Chabrier's "Marche joyeuse" don't so much whoop as trill gracefully).

The disc partially replicates a Decca Ovation release (425 083-2) with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet which includes the overtures to Zampa, Mignon and La Belle Hélène. The Chandos performances are much more polished, although it must be said that the Swiss players convey a greater sense of the hurly-burly of the orchestral pit in their brash enthusiasm. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir makes a brief but telling appearance on the disc in the Offenbach Barcarolle and the leader of the BBC Philharmonic, Yuri Torchinsky, brings a refreshing spontaneity to the Méditation from "Thaïs" (taken at a flowing tempo and thankfully devoid of cloying sentimentality).

This is a worthwhile CD, bringing together some very attractive French miniatures. However, just as a surfeit of bonbons can induce a feeling of nausea if too many are consumed at once, so I would recommend dipping into this selection on repeated hearings rather than listening from beginning to end every time! Now that most orchestral concerts have given up on encores (perhaps due to the constant programming of late-19th/early 20th century symphonic heavyweights), it is all the more valuable to have an opportunity to hear these well-orchestrated tuneful works. I hope there will be more discs of similar repertoire to come from these artists - it is rare to find "light" music invested with such care and affection.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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