> Carnaval des animaux [JP]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arco Baleno

Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886] [23’16"]
Marc MATTHYS (b.1956)

Camel Caravan [6’08"]
Jan HUYLEBROECK (b.1956)

Cortège des espèces bien mortes [9’42"]
Frits CELIS (b.1929)

Elégie pour un faun [9’31"]
Petra VERMOTE (b.1968)

Drakemie [2’50"]
Roland CORYN (b.1938)

Elephantasia [6’35"]
Boudewijn BUCKINX (b.1945)

Konijn [4’42"]
Yves BONDUE (b.1966)

Kameleon [6’37"]
Lucien POSMAN (b.1952)

Pauw [5’07"]
Arco Balena Ensemble
Recorded at Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium in October - November 2001
DEXIA codaex CX4003 [74.27]

Though officially written in 1886, the origins of Le Carnaval des Animaux probably date back to the years Saint-Saëns taught at the Niedermeyer School in Paris (1861-1865]. According to his students, he had a habit of illustrating his lessons with humorous improvisations and funny little parodies. Though they unavailingly urged Saint-Saëns to put these variations down in writing, it is highly likely that some of the excursions ultimately ended up in Le Carnaval des Animaux, especially since the title itself also dates from this period.

The first performance of the Grande Fantaisie Zoologique, the rough draft of which was to become the Carnival, met with an astounding reception on "Fat Tuesday", 9 March 1886. The equally successful publication of the sheet music inspired many arrangements for other combinations of instruments.

Fearing the Carnival would obscure his other, more serious works, Saint-Saëns banned its execution and publication for the remainder of his life, apart from Le Cygne. Following the composer’s death in 1921, the score was printed once again and soon afterwards two well-received performances of the entire opus in February 1922 newly invigorated the worldwide success of the piece.

The performances are given here by Arco Baleno (The rainbow) - a Belgian chamber ensemble consisting of two pianos, string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, celesta and percussion. It was founded in 1993 by students of several Flemish conservatories and is a professional chamber ensemble scanning diverse musical works for common denominators or messages. Usually the group combines a standard repertoire with less known, often brand new pieces, as on this disc. The difficulty in reviewing their Saint-Saëns performance is that it is good, professional and sensible, without being outstanding. Intonation and ensemble playing are excellent. I presume there is no conductor, none is mentioned. The pianists do their job well and the balance between the forces is good. Being a chamber group, the music as one would expect, is more transparent than with larger forces.

Marc Matthys is a pianist and composer who completed his classical training at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. He then made himself known as an extremely versatile musician in genres as diverse as classical music, jazz and pop. He is head of the conservatory in Kortrijk and a teacher at the Hogeschool Gent (conservatory]. The Camel Caravan has the double bass acting as the lead part, with accompanying string quartet, flute and piano. The opening brings memories of "Bydlo" from Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition", but after the opening passages, a swing jazzy idiom takes over. The piece ends with a passacaglia interlude before the final piano chords echo the opening. Of all the shorter items, this I found the most approachable.

Jan Huylebroeck graduated from the Royal Conservatory in Ghent with six diplomas, and now works in most areas of the music business. Apart from performing on the piano, keyboard, bass tuba, (baroque) timpani and other percussive instruments, he is also in demand as an accompanist, composer and arranger. His "Cortège des espaces" is minimalistic, with percussive drums, stamping, string harmonics and a duet between viola and violin (the three instruments to take part). There are some canon-like episodes, and the whole piece relies heavily on the kitchen department. Espèces means fossils, but how they are presumed to come to life in a dance episode I cannot fathom. The piece shows marked atonality.

Frits Célis studied in Antwerp, Cologne, Brussels and Salzburg. Beginning his career as a harpist, he later became a conductor and musical director at the Antwerp and Brussels operas. His music evolved from a tonal, post-romantic idiom to atonality and expressionism, but has now returned to atonal lyricism. His "Elégie pour un Faun" is well played in its atonal context by flute and string quartet, but I cannot find any reference musically to a faun; indeed any message or idiom in the music could be applied to whatsoever you would like to call it, for example, leaves floating down a river.

Petra Vermote achieved First Prizes in solfège, guitar, chamber music, harmony, counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatory in Ghent, and took the Higher Diploma in guitar with Baltazar Benitez. She took her first lessons in composition at the same music school, and became a Master in Music, with composing as a speciality, at the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp. "Drakemie" was a title chosen on impulse, but where the music should represent heaven, change, magic and wisdom I am at a complete loss to appreciate - but then atonality was never my forte. The same forces as perform in "Le Carnaval" are used apart from the celesta. One is supposed to be able to distinguish between the different guises of the dragon, and its different functions, including the ability to spit fire - my impression is that tin tacks may be nearer the mark!

Roland Coryn is a graduate from the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. Having achieved a First Prize in piano and a Higher Diploma in viola and chamber music, he also attained a First Prize in composition. He began his career as a performing artist, only later turning to composition. He eventually produced a reasonably large body of work, consisting of chamber music, orchestral and choral pieces. He concluded his career as a professor in composition at the Hogeschool Gent as well as the head of the SAMW in Harelbeke. "Elephantasia" is written for solo double bass, and opens with a paraphrase of Saint-Saëns’ elephant. The playing is good, but six and a half minutes of solo double bass gets rapidly boring and I had great difficulty in holding my attention.

Boudewijn Buckinx is a post-modernist composer, and has 1001 Sonatas and Nine Unfinished Symphonies to his name; he is a great protagonist for contemporary music and has his own ensemble. "Konijn" means rabbit, and indeed if the programme notes are to be believed, this is a most extra-ordinary rabbit. The piece opens with quite lush harmonies on a peaceful, gently hopping rhythm, but then becomes, to my ears, over-loud and overpowering. The impression I got was more of an exotic brightly-coloured bird preening its shining coruscatingly coloured feathers and certainly not a dun-colored rabbit, even with floppy ears! The full ensemble is used - minus celesta.

Yves Bondue taught himself to play and compose music as well as to write and act. He has been awarded many prizes for his compositions and many of his works have been published. "Kameleon" I found quite appealing and very believable in its chameleonesque manner. There is plenty of change and contrast, with some well-worked ideas, and with full forces of Arco Baleno, the music depicts its reptilian subject faithfully in a rainbow of colours.

Lucien Posman teaches at the Hogeschool Gent and at MAGO, also in Ghent. He is artistic director of the concert hall De Rode Pomp, and a member of the editorial staff of the New Flemish Musical Review. He achieved First Prizes in all theatrical courses at the music schools of Ghent and Antwerp, and as a composer represents "neo-normalism". "Pauw" (the peacock) is a well produced musical picture of the peacock with its shrill cry, pecking and careful slow gait. I found the piece clever rather than overtly musical, and there is no motif that one can readily attach to a peacock. At the end of the piece it becomes a cacophony of noise, well presented by the Ensemble (minus the double bass) which is presumed to be the peacock exhibiting its finery in display.

In all these pieces the Ensemble gives very professional performances. The presentation of the disc is striking with an orange cover and sleeve. The booklet is very informative regarding the Flemish composers - indeed I should have been at a loss to give any information without it; all the details are taken from the written articles, at least as to the careers and qualifications of the composers. An interesting disc, but more for modernists than pure classicists.

John Portwood

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