idea got around during the Rattle years in Birmingham that Sir
Simon had single-handedly dragged the CBSO out of the trough
of provinciality. Louis Frémaux’s CBSO proves here to be a more
than proficient band, with neat ensemble, good wind soloists
and some rather exciting brass. Mind you, during the Frémaux
years it was said that he had single-handedly dragged
the CBSO out of the trough of provinciality. The trouble with
that is that the only record the orchestra ever made, so far
as I know, under his predecessor Hugo Rignold was a splendid
Bliss coupling for Lyrita. One is reminded of Solti’s claim
that the Chicago SO was a provincial band before he put them
to rights (Kubelík? Reiner? …).
Macabre” opens the proceedings splendidly, with the right eerie
colour and well-paced rhythms. The only doubt is the end, and
this may be Saint-Saëns’ own fault. This piece is actually an
expanded version of a song which originally had just piano accompaniment.
The orchestral work follows the song quite closely for a couple
of minutes then branches out on its own account. Rather strangely,
Saint-Saëns retains the original ending and has the solo violin
play the voice’s final comment in a semi-recitative which does
not have a lot of sense without the words. Up to this point
the poem by Henri Cazalis has been describing the dead dancers,
who are rich and poor all mingling together without class distinction.
So when the cock crows the singer calls out mockingly, and with
an ironic reference to the motto of the French Republic:
La belle nuit pour le pauvre monde,
Et vivent la mort et l’égalité!
[Oh what a lovely night for the poor world,
Up with death and equality!]
violinist who knows these words might try to play the music
with suitably vicious mockery. I don’t think CBSO leader Felix
Kok could have known them since he plays these bars rather romantically.
But the same could be said of most performances.
a sense, though, the Rattle-ites had a point. Love him or loathe
him, Rattle has charisma. Frémaux just has sound musicianship.
“Carnival of the Animals” is neatly turned, but I found myself
wishing he would push the characterization of each piece that
little bit more. Frankly, it’s ages since I heard this work
but I remember it all sounding so much more zippy on an old
Parlophone LP by Felix Slatkin (father of Leonard). John Ogdon
had charisma, of course, but perhaps Saint-Saëns interested
him less than Busoni, Sorabji et al and he and his wife Brenda
Lucas are content to fit in with Frémaux’s view.
so it is with the Symphony. The first movement chugs along amiably
but Frémaux is content just to keep things on an even keel.
The second subject is not presented to the listener as a new
idea, it just happens. The famous Munch version contains no
exaggerations but guides the listener’s ear as we expect from
a great interpreter. At the beginning of the slow movement the
difference between the two is almost comic. From Munch we get
a great conductor and orchestra combining to mould the phrases,
breathing and shading the music like a singer. From Frémaux
we get a competent time-beater guiding the orchestra from one
note to the next. He infuses the remaining two movements with
more vitality but tension sags when the music is not forte.
course, the Munch recording is older – about contemporary with
the Prêtre filler here and that’s how it sounds. But the Birmingham
recording does not sound entirely natural, the inevitable result
of engineers trying to give an illusion of Bostonian sonority
to a rather modest string section, a pretence that was hardly
necessary in Boston itself.
shoot themselves in the foot with the remaining two pieces.
Or rather, shoot Saint-Saëns and Frémaux in the foot.
Saint-Saëns. If you listen to four of the pieces on this disc,
you’d think what a terrific composer Saint-Saëns was. You might
even want to go out and buy everything he wrote. The Allegro
appassionato is there to remind you that all too often his music
consists of pleasant, fluent little nothings. Not even Tortelier
can do much for it.
Frémaux. If you haven’t made comparisons, if you’ve just been
lapping up the amiable performances, there’s Prêtre to remind
you of the big outside world beyond Birmingham. Prêtre is not
a conductor I personally care for much, I find much of his work
overheated. But if trod the world stage it’s because he has
that thing called charisma, he carries orchestras and audiences
with him. The Bacchanale leaps into life in a way Frémaux just
doesn’t seem to manage.
know that Frémaux did excellent work in Birmingham and inhabitants
of that city who recall his concerts may like a souvenir. Some
of his recordings of rarer repertoire may still be useful.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett