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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Symphony in B flat major Op.20  (1889-90) [33:45]
Soir de fête Op.32 (1897-98) [
Viviane, symphonic poem Op.5 (1882, rev.1887) [
Orchestre (National) du Capitole de
Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. Halle aux grains, Toulouse 16 May 1976 (Soir de fête) ADD, 9-10 August 1978 (Symphony) ADD, 18 October 1986 (Viviane) DDD
Booklets notes in French and English


Experience Classicsonline

Ernest Chausson has always suffered from a lack of exposure. His friend, the slightly younger Claude Debussy told Chausson he would never allow himself to venture past his own self-doubt about his abilities as a composer. He is also one of those composers who died prematurely in bizarre circumstances. One day in June 1899, aged only 44, Chausson lost control of his bicycle while travelling downhill. He crashed into a brick wall and was killed instantly! Not a prolific composer, Chausson’s early death meant that not much music was left behind. Of these, a few are heard occasionally, such as the rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer, the Poème for violin and orchestra and the lone Symphony heard here. This useful CD includes his first orchestral work (Viviane), his last one (Soir de fête), as well as his most notable one (the Symphony in B flat).

The influence of Wagner - and, subsequently, César Franck, whose Symphony in D minor makes a favourite coupling for the Chausson B-flat Symphony - is always far stronger in Chausson than it ever was in Debussy and this is clearly evident in these three works. This is most evident in the earliest of the works on this CD, Viviane. Viviane is a symphonic poem based on a Round Table legend of Vivian, King Arthur and Merlin. For such a relatively early work, Viviane is surprisingly and convincingly assured - no need for Chausson’s persistent self-criticism here. The recording of this work is the most recent of the three on this CD and was made after the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse was awarded the title ‘National’ in 1980. Although still sounding a little dated this recording does not suffer from the somewhat thin, papery sound that sometimes plagues the earlier recordings of the Symphony and Soir de fête. 

The 1978 recording of Soir de fête was its first and today there are still only two other recordings: from José Serebrier and Yan Pascal Tortelier. To my ears, it is not one of Chausson’s strongest works and this might account for the paucity of recordings. However, it receives as committed a performance as one might expect from Michel Plasson and his very French-sounding Toulouse Capitole orchestra. 

Chausson’s single Symphony is his most recorded work after the Poème, although one seldom hears it in the concert hall. Like Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Chausson’s work is in three movements. The first is a pretty standard but very attractively written sonata-form movement with a slow introduction, the second a fairly free-form and deeply-felt Très lent and the last a large-scale finale which re-uses elements from the first movement in different guises. Nothing too remarkable here, but I have always found this Symphony tremendously appealing since first hearing it through Charles Munch’s 1950s recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – happily still available. 

So, how competitive is this Arkiv reissue of an EMI original? As I said before, the sound is not always as full and rich as many might like and the timbre of the orchestra is very French – old style French bassoons, narrow-bore brass and piquant winds; certainly the sorts of sounds Chausson is likely to have expected but perhaps not to everyone’s taste. The exact same programme is duplicated on a Chandos CD with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic, along with the additional Air de danse and Danse rustique from Chausson’;s incidental music La tempête. This makes the Chandos CD excellent value – especially with such fine performances and modern digital sound. Sadly, I fear that for many this current CD will find itself in the ‘of historical interest’ category, which is a shame, given Toulouse’s and Plasson’s dedicated pioneering of lesser-known French repertoire. 

The reproduction of the original EMI CD booklet was not very impressive in my copy – the print was rather patchy – especially the one for Viviane, which looks as if it was added on as an afterthought. 

Derek Warby 


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