Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Benvenuto Cellini: Overture (1)
Danse macabre, op.40; Samson et Dalila, op.47: Bacchanale (2)
L'Apprenti sorcier (3)
España (4)
Gabriel FAURE
Pavane, op.50 (5)
Georges BIZET
Jeux d'enfants (6)
Le Chasseur maudit (7)
Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (8)
Maurice RAVEL
Pavane pour une infante défunte (9)
Pacific 231 (10)
Jacques IBERT
Escales … (11)
Erik SATIE (arr. Debussy)
3 Gymnopédies: nos. 3 & 1 (12); Parade (13)
Maurice RAVEL
Boléro (14)

  Tanglewood Festival Chorus (5), Berliner Philharmoniker (1, 3, 8), Boston Symphony Orchestra (5, 9, 14), London Symphony Orchestra (4, 13), Orchestre de Paris (2, 7), Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse (10), Orchestre National de France (6), Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (11), Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (12)/Ataulfo Argenta (4), Daniel Barenboim (2, 7), Antal Dorati (13), Charles Dutoit (11), Herbert von Karajan (8), James Levine (1, 3), Jean Martinon (6), Seiji Ozawa (5, 9, 14), Michel Plasson (10)
 DG PANORAMA 469 250-2 [2 CDs, 74.31+72.27]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

The first question is, who is this sort of collection aimed at? The relative newcomer to the French repertoire will get a fair introduction to its riches, and a couple of slightly less standard items (the Ibert and Satie's Parade) which may be intended as a bait for those with larger collections. It's easy to criticise the pieces chosen in an anthology, but the Honegger and the Ibert (a piece usually sneered at as a suite of musical postcards, but what else can one say of it?) might have been omitted in favour of Roussel's 2nd Bacchus et Ariane Suite. It also provides a showcase for the records of this repertoire which DG and Decca have produced over the last couple of decades, and again a lure for more seasoned collectors has been provided in the 1958 Argenta performance and Dorati's Mercury recording of Parade. I suppose the idea is that casual purchasers might then want to enlarge their knowledge of the repertoire by buying the CDs from which the performances are taken, but I'm not so sure this is going to happen.

Meditating on why the Dukas comes off as the better of Levine's energetic pair of performances, I think it is because he gives us the idea that the music is following a pre-arranged trajectory. This does less damage in the Dukas which was probably composed like that anyway. I don't suggest that he shows no appreciation of Berlioz's wayward genius, but he doesn't seem to be surprised by it in the least and so the essential ingredient is missing.

Time was when conductors like Beecham, Stokowski or Toscanini would lavish all their talents on relative trinkets like the Danse macabre and L'Apprenti sorcier, communicating their total belief in the music and introducing countless listeners to the delights of classical music. I don't think the Levine items will get listeners the same way, and nor will Barenboim's Saint-Saëns, which he approaches as merely a job to be done. The more symphonic Franck piece engages his imagination rather more and it has a lot of conviction, but how imprecise the orchestra is! I get the impression that Barenboim conducts the particular melodic line which interests him and lets the rest fend for itself, which it does about half a beat behind.

Ozawa conducts his items with great refinement. Unfortunately the Fauré suffers from unlovely choral singing with heavy vibrato from the ladies and crude-toned tenors. A pity, since the piece seems ideally suited to Ozawa's temperament, more so than the Ravel Pavane which is exquisitely drawn but a tad static. Such a deadpan Boléro seemed very tedious for the first ten minutes or so but in the later stages I suddenly realised that crudity with which the theme was being battered out at a steady, remorseless rhythm was reminding me of the central section of the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. I should always prefer a performance with more lift to it, but I admit this has something to say.

Martinon was a sterling interpreter of French music but I have to point out that if you compare the two slow movements with those in the recently issued Boult performance (BBC Legends) it is quite startling how much more expressive range a really great conductor, as opposed to a merely excellent one, can find in such apparently simple pieces. Similarly Plasson's Pacific 231 seems to take a leisurely outing down a branch line. Technology has come a long way since those days but other performances have shown that the music can still evoke the awesome, state-of-the-art roaring monster which the steam engine seemed to be to Honegger. The Ibert at least lets us appreciate the refinement and vitality which have brought Dutoit and the Montreal orchestra to the forefront of French music interpreters (why were they allotted only the one item?) and the Satie Gymnopédies cast their usual mournful spell. I have heard more slyly knowing performances of Parade than Dorati's. Perhaps his brisk straight-down-the-line approach was intended to let us concentrate on the purely musical virtues of the score. The trouble is that, to my ears, it doesn't have many.

I've left out two conductors. Ataulfo Argenta died rather young and I've heard claims that he was a really great conductor in the making, a sort of Spanish Cantelli. One could not possibly judge the truth of such claims from a single performance of a six-and-a-half-minute piece, but he certainly does radiate that total belief which transforms a lesser work into a wholly engrossing experience, and which is generally missing in this collection. And the other …? I yield to no one in my detestation of the chromium-plated image Karajan created for himself as the years rolled on, yet one can only bow down humbly before this 1965 performance. Hear how perfectly the melodic lines are wrapped around one another, and how wonderfully he has judged a tempo which allows for languor and mobility in equal measure. Once upon a time a DG compilation of repertoire like this would have automatically used Karajan performances for all the pieces where one existed. Perhaps they had a point after all.

Christopher Howell

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: