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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L'Arlésienne: Suite No. 1 (1872) [16:53]
L'Arlésienne: Suite No. 2 (arr. Guiraud) - Menuet (1872) [4:40]
L'Arlésienne: Suite No. 2 (arr. Guiraud) - Farandole (1872) [3:16]
Symphony in C major (1855) [29:07]
Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/Alain Lombard
rec. Strasbourg, 1974-5
WARNER APEX 2564-62082-2 [54:36]
Experience Classicsonline

I'd heard these performances long ago, on a Musical Heritage Society LP - the easiest way to get Erato recordings in the States, before the company's licensing agreement with RCA. I generally prefer vinyl to silver disc, but I don't remember that LP sounding as good as this. Not only is there a greater immediacy - probably the standard result of digital tweaking in the treble - but the sense of front-to-back depth, evident on L'Arlésienne's unison horns, is unusually vivid. Perhaps the plain, black-lines-on-white design of the Musical Heritage LP jacket influenced my initial negative perception of the engineering!

The performances, alas, remain second-tier. You'd enjoy hearing the pleasant L'Arlésienne selection - just six of the eight movements, although the front of the booklet inaccurately claims "Suites 1 and 2" - on a free evening in Strasbourg, but it's unexceptional. There are mild ensemble problems - the string syncopations have trouble staying off the beat in the opening Prélude, and the woodwinds and strings don't quite agree on the tempo for the middle section of the Minuetto - of the sort that occur when you're conducting "the tunes" rather than all the musical elements. The tempo for the Menuet from Suite 2 is poky.

Lombard has a good feel for the Symphony, aside from some clumsy transitional ritards, a problem in L'Arlésienne as well. He brings real insight to the slow movement, which in some performances drags on endlessly. Lombard eases into a faster motion for the string phrases at 2:56, providing a nice uplift; the fugue that follows (4:29) reverts to the slower pulse but, by playing it lightly, Lombard avoids a pedantic, academic feeling. And the conductor's very Gallic treatment of the Finale finds room for elegance amid all the bustle. (At the extreme, compare Stokowski's shapeless, absurd scramble on Sony.) The other two movements are fine, but the more vigorous attacks betray a passing roughness in the strings.

Even at budget price, you can do better with Jacques Delacôte's similar program - available briefly in the U.S. as RPO Collection 2848, though you may have to hunt for it. Delacôte plays the two L'Arlésienne Suites in their entirety with style, the RPO sounds more polished than the Strasbourg orchestra, and the sound is excellent.

Stephen Francis Vasta 


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