Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20 (1890) [31:27]
Soir de Fête, Op. 32 (1898) [13:13]
Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Op. 19 (1890) [26:14]
Brigitte Balleys (mezzo)
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. March 2008, Queen Elisabeth Concert Hall, Brussels
TALENT DOM 2929 97 [71:24]
After studying orchestration with Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, Chausson joined the group of earnest young musicians who gathered around the august figure of César Franck. In common with his friend Vincent d'Indy, another musician fortunate enough to possess a large private income, Chausson tended towards an exalted view of his art. He worked slowly and conscientiously, pursuing his ideal of romantic sensibility with a committed self-discipline.
Wagner was a major influence on Chausson's style, as was his teacher and mentor Franck. His creative output was not extensive, however, though it certainly represents a significant contribution to French musical romanticism. The fine Symphony in B flat testifies to his understanding of the orchestra, while his chamber music and songs are masterly too. The extended tone poem for voice and orchestra, Poème de l’amour et de la mer, is arguably his masterpiece.
Chausson's Symphony, written in 1889-90, has features in its outer movements especially that recall the corresponding parts of Franck's Symphony. The scoring and harmony of the work's closing passage show that Chausson thoroughly absorbed Parsifal when he attended the Bayreuth premiere in 1882.
Chausson concedes nothing to Franck’s masterwork in terms of quality, and as such it deserves a wider currency. The opening spells out in a slow introduction a theme which garners stronger personality when the tempo moves up to Allegro. As such the conductor needs clearly to outline the close motivic developments that lie at the heart of the conception, while also giving priority to atmosphere and expression. Michael Schønwandt is an experienced hand in such matters, having recorded a notable collection of the Carl Nielsen symphonies. He has a real feel for Chausson’s idiom. The playing of the Royal Flemish Orchestra and the nicely atmospheric recording make this a most satisfying performance of what is truly a great symphony. There are other recorded performances conducted by such as Charles Munch (RCA Red Seal 74321 845912) and Armin Jordan (Erato ECD 88169), but Schønwandt matches all of them.
The single-movement Jour de Fête does not seem to find the composer on such exalted form. It is atmospheric to be sure, but in this performance at least the music lacks a distinctive personality. Perhaps it only reveals its virtues gradually. That could hardly be said of the glorious Poème de l’amour et de la mer, one of the most distinguished products of French romanticism. Here the combination of voice and orchestra is beautifully realised in every way.
Dedicated to Henri Duparc, another great French song-writer, the work received its premiere at Brussels in 1893. The structural design is most unusual, with two extended song settings, separated by a shorter and purely orchestral interlude. With a performance time of nearly thirty minutes, the music is conceived on a large scale, as Chausson evokes the sea in all its moods. In this regard the orchestra is allocated a major role throughout, and the full range of emotions and atmosphere is evoked with colourful and sonorous mastery.
Schønwandt and the orchestra are on excellent form here too, creating wonderfully rich and colourful sounds that offset the distinctive timbre of the Swiss mezzo Brigitte Balleys. She has a marvellous feel for the music, and her interpretation ranks her alongside other distinguished performances, for example by Jessye Norman (Erato 2292 45368 2) and Linda Finnie (Chandos CHAN 8952). Getting the right sound, both vocally and orchestrally, is particularly important in this repertoire, and one of the real strengths of this new issue is that the music does always sound wonderful

Terry Barfoot
The orchestral playing, Balleys’ singing, and the nicely atmospheric recording make this a most satisfying experience. ... see Full Review