Although he was chiefly an opera composer, and a very
fine one at that, Massenet also wrote a body of sophisticated and accomplished
orchestral music. Of that this compilation makes clear testimony; although
none of these pieces can lay claim to greatness, they are all fluent
in inspiration and sure in technique.
Previously issued on the Marco Polo label in 1991,
this Naxos recording brings the music back into circulation at a bargain
price. The standards of presentation are up to the company's usual high
standard, with a clearly laid out leaflet and sound though sometimes
anodyne notes from Keith Anderson, who has more to say about context
than about the music.
What of the performances? The Hong Kong Orchestra is
more than adequate, and there is a good discipline about their playing
for Kenneth Jean, so that ensemble is tight and articulation clear.
The strings, however, do not glow like those of the best international
orchestras, and the brass do lack bite. Of course these things may result
somewhat from the slightly dull and opaque recording, which lacks in
depth of perspective.
These things do matter in this kind of music, which
relies a great deal on richly coloured orchestral timbres and combinations,
features which are under-characterised here. Massenet composed eight
purely orchestral suites, in addition to those he created from existing
operas, and the early Suite No. 1 (written in 1865 in Rome) is less
atmospherically drawn than later examples. By all accounts it was not
well received at its Parisian premiere, and though the music does not
fail to please the ear, it lacks melodic and rhythmic vitality and personality.
The two operatic suites fare rather better. Both Esclarmonde
and Cendrillon have the benefit of colourful and evocative story-lines
and contexts, which gave stimulus to Massenet's imagination. Both the
suites are entertaining and quite wide-ranging in expressive manner,
and Esclarmonde in particular draws some interesting and evocative
orchestral sounds from Massenet. This is an interesting disc which retails
at a competitive price, but I am afraid I can only greet it with two
cheers rather than three.