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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 (1835-1921) Suite Algérienne Op 60 (1879) [18:13]
Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice/Marco Guidarini
rec. March 2007, Diacosme Hall, Nice, France.
TALENT DOM 2929 106 [77:46]

Experience Classicsonline

This is an interesting and instructive collection of French music written within a very short period near the end of the nineteenth century. Each movement of the three Suites here has, as the curiously translated notes point out, a "suggestive title" referring to some picturesque or exotic scene. This was by no means a new phenomenon. French composers from a couple of centuries earlier had been giving exotic titles to harpsichord pieces, and there are many examples of the exotic in French opera from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each of the present Suites comprises a series of illustrative scenes from some particular location. That said, one might wonder whether, without prior knowledge of the titles, that location could be correctly identified though I am far from sure that this is of any great importance in itself.

The Scènes Alsaciennes are the last of Massenet’s seven orchestral Suites. According to the notes they "evoke the annexation of this French territory [Alsace] by Germany during the war of 1870-71". However it is not so much the annexation itself as the feeling of loss of that territory that is evoked in four movements illustrating in turn a quiet street on a Sunday morning, dancing at a cabaret, a pair of lovers walking among the trees, and a scene of general rejoicing. It may not be Massenet’s best work, and at times it does seem much too long for its content, but it is enjoyable to listen to, and is given a sensitive and, where necessary, lively performance by the Nice Philharmonic.

The middle work is also the longest – the Impressions d’Italie by Charpentier, best known for the opera "Louise". It was written after he won the Prix de Rome, and is in five movements depicting different aspects of Italy, ending with a noisy evocation of Naples. At nearly 13 minutes that is the longest piece on the disc, and like the rest of the Suite does tend to outstay its welcome. I am glad to have heard it, but on a second hearing my mind would keep wandering away. My fault you may reasonably say. It is indeed the job of the critic to concentrate on the matter in hand, but this is not a piece in which I could summon any great interest. You may well find that you enjoy it more, and it is certainly written and scored with great craftsmanship. It was recorded under the composer’s direction in a version I have not heard but which is available from Dutton. There are few if any other rivals and you may well want to take the opportunity to hear what else the composer of "Louise" wrote.

For a combination of good craftsmanship with real inspiration one has to go no further than the last piece - the Suite Algérienne by Saint-Saëns. Only the last movement – the Marche Militaire Française – is well known but the whole Suite is irresistible, each movement evoking a vivid picture economically and effectively. It is the shortest piece here but also, not entirely by coincidence, the best, and like all three pieces is played idiomatically and well recorded. If you are especially fond of French music of this period you might well feel that the Charpentier would be of much greater interest to you than it was to me. For others there is a more muted recommendation, although personally I would think the disc worthwhile for the Suite Algérienne alone.

John Sheppard

see also review by Dominy Clements




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