> Jules Massenet - Orchestral Suites [OW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Orchestral Suites:
Esclarmonde (1890)
Cendrillon (1899)
Suite No. 1 (1865)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kenneth Jean
Recorded in the Tsuen Wan Town Hall, April 1989
NAXOS 8.555986 [57:59]


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This disc is a straight reissue of a 1991 release from Naxosí sister company Marco Polo. Quite why this has happened is a mystery; Naxos already have a perfectly serviceable account of the Orchestral Suite No.1 in an account by Jean-Yves Ossonce and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The present issue matches that other performance neither in performance nor recorded sound. As for the two operatic suites, they remain curiosities, revealing little of the breadth and scope of the operas from which they are taken.

There can be little doubt that Massenetís talent was for operatic writing; his style has often been criticised for being overtly sentimental but his work seems to be back in favour of late, with excellent new recordings of Werther and Manon from EMI and Thais with Renee Fleming from Decca. Neither of the two operas represented on this disc are among his most popular. Esclarmonde is an epic work of Wagnerian stature, a real French Tristan full of enchanted islands and magical forests. The present suite opens in a manner representative of the disc as a whole - a hugely resonant acoustic masking some fallible brass playing. As the first piece moves through to its gentle central section the playing improves but the noble melody is presented without much imagination or care for phrasing. Kenneth Jean doesnít manage to stir up much in the way of passion as the number progresses and isnít quite responsive enough to the expressive nuances inherent in this music. While the brass reprise of this theme at the close of the piece is played to the manor born, the accompanying string figures are thrown to the fore by the odd recording balance.

The second movement fares better but this depiction of a magic island is lacking in that very quality. Nevertheless the shimmering, fluctuating orchestral timbres are well caught by the refined playing even if once more the romantic segments fail to blossom sufficiently. The third movement however features some very expressive string playing and, at last, a passionate display of temperament as Jean drives the strings towards the climax. Unfortunately the final movement, a forest scene containing pastoral music and a climatic chase, fails to generate much excitement. Fallible brass playing again robs the music of any energy, excellent horns excepted. The suite draws to a noisy close before one senses that it has really got going. Moreover, the suite as a whole does not do justice to Massenetís masterful opera; a far better option would be to invest in a complete recording, preferably the Decca set from the late seventies with Joan Sutherland. It is one of her finest recorded performances, with the celebrated prima donna relishing the extraordinary demands of the title role. This would, of course involve an outlay of at least six times that of this inexpensive Naxos recording.

A similar situation would be applicable to the Cendrillon Suite; but the only worthy recording of this delightful fairy tale opera (formerly on CBS, with Frederica von Stade and Nicolai Gedda) is not generally available. Once again, this suite is not representative of the opera as a whole. The three numbers represent the more spectacular courtly scenes, with all the pomp and circumstance that one would expect of such a work, but the heavy-handed approach favoured here does the music no favours and it is hard to gleam any sense of the magical or fantastic. Besides, Massenet is at his most inspired in lyrical music. The more extrovert style showcased here has a sense of routine about it.

The performance of the Orchestral Suite No.1 is significantly better; though paradoxically the music is less assured. Without the inspiration of a dramatic setting the composer seems slightly adrift. Nevertheless Jean and his Hong Kong forces give a sensitive, well-proportioned performance. However the recording still suffers from an over-resonant recording, and Naxosís own competition (mentioned above) is much the better prospect and is more logically coupled with further (non-operatic) suites by Massenet. The present reissue is not really recommended unless for completeness; far greater satisfaction can be experienced from listening to the real thing, something that I heartily advise.

Owen Walton

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