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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Scènes Alsaciennes (1881) [23:20]
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)

Impressions d’Italie (1891) [35:58]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1923)

Suite Algérienne (1879) [18:13]
Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice/Marco Guidarini
rec. March 2007, Diacosmie Hall, Nice, France
TALENT DOM 2929 106 SACD [77:46]

This is an interesting programme of some unusual material. None of these works are exactly thick on the ground, but Marco Guidarini and the Talent label have created an interestingly themed programme. What these works do share is evidence of the 19th century’s artist’s interest in countries beyond their own, something which is enriched by a healthy list of other examples in the booklet notes, about whose unique qualities I shall be returning later.

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice has been in existence since 1945, and Marco Guidarini has been its musical director since 2001. Nicely intonated winds open Massenet’s Scènes Alsaciennes, and with a pleasantly – possibly even slightly over-resonant acoustic, one can sit back and immediately feel one is in safe hands. This work is subtitled Souvenirs, and the programmatic elements are clearly alluded to in the titles of each of its four movements. The first, Dimanche matin, alternates rustic charm with some piously gentle chorale-like passages. Later there is dancing and dialogue, tender allusions to lovers in the park and the distant dangers of war: the whole thing has a Smetana/Dvořák-meets-Beethoven-in-the-Tuilleries feel, and very attractive and enjoyable it is too.

Gustave Charpentier, not to be confused with Marc-Antoine, was a pupil of Massenet, winning the Prix de Rome in 1887 and making his name with the opera Louise. The Impressions d’Italie begins with over two minutes of the cello section alone, acting as an introduction to a rather beautiful Sérénade. As with the Massenet, the piece has descriptive titles, with descriptions of scenes such as A la fontaine and Sur les cimes, each exploring a wide spectrum of orchestral colouration. The substance of this relatively long work is often extended by lengthy ostinato developments, but with numerous subtle effects these only occasionally seem to outstay their welcome. The finale, Napoli, is a lively depiction of elegant cosmopolitanism, with nice some nice layering of multiple tunes, and the orchestral tone enriched by the inclusion of harp, percussion, and some superb wind writing.

Camille Saint-Saëns regularly spent time in warmer climes due to his fragile health, and the attractions of Algeria are depicted in his Suite Algérienne. The opening Prélude is very much an ‘arrival by boat’, with an evocation of the sense of wonder as increasing delights are revealed. The entire work is a reminder of Saint-Saëns’ skill as an orchestrator, and with the Rhapsodie Mauresque he masterfully depicts exotic folk music. Rêverie de soir has one of those deceptively simple melodies, introduced by a viola solo, and passed from winds to strings thereafter. It falls somewhere between a waltz and a Sicilienne in its lilting and poetic movement. The final ‘military march’ is in fact quiet a vigorous and lively movement, with joyous political incorrectness referring to the French colonization of Algeria by France.

This is an excellent disc, full of approachable, off-the-beaten-track music collected, I suspect, for the first time in one place. The orchestral playing is very good indeed, and the SACD recording is spacious, richly dynamic, and an invitation for repeat playing just to enjoy that gorgeous sound. I have but one criticism, which takes the form of a strong suggestion to the producers of the Talent label’s booklets: please, for goodness sake, employ a native speaker to translate or at the very least proofread the notes. It’s not expensive, I know, I do that kind of work often enough. I can’t speak for the other languages, but the English text in this booklet, while potentially informative, is a hopeless mishmash of mixed tenses, strange spelling and bizarre sentences. It’s a shame to spoil the ship for a hap’orth of tar, so please, next time…?

Dominy Clements


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