Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen Suite (1875) [28:53]
L'Arlésienne Suite (1872) [33:34]
Patrie! – Ouverture dramatique, Op. 19 (1873) [12:09]
Symphony in C (1855) [27:05]
Jeux d'enfants (Petite Suite), Op. 22 (1871) [10:46]
La jolie fille de Perth Suite (1866) [12:15]
Danzas fantásticas, Op. 22 (1920) [15:32]
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. May 1958 (Carmen, L'Arlésienne), October 1954 (Patrie!), May
1960 (Danzas fantásticas), October 1960 (Symphony in C, Jeux d'enfants
and La jolie fille de Perth), Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0457 [74:56 + 66:07]
What a treasure trove Eloquence have unearthed with their Ansermet edition. Of the discs that have come my way I much enjoyed the Prokofiev ballet suites – review – and complete Sleeping Beauty – review – but I was especially keen to reacquaint myself with this Bizet. For some reason Ansermet always struck me as somewhat ordinary, ‘his’ Swiss orchestra merely average, but the beauty of these reissues – retrospectives, if you like – is that they allow one to make amends for earlier misjudgements.
In particular, the OSR seem much more individual than I remember them from my LP days, so unlike the homogenised orchestral sound that prevails today. True, they aren’t the most refined band, but what they lack in precision they more than make up for in passion and power. Their Romeo and Juliet comes to mind, as indeed does their Swan Lake, the latter first heard on a much-battered set of LPs from the early 1960s. Even more of a revelation is the quality of Decca’s engineering. Indeed, this version of Patrie! dates from 1954, the year Decca released their first commercial stereo recording.
The Carmen Suite, recorded four years later, barely shows its age, the famous overture as thrilling as ever, the all-important cymbals very well caught. Some may find the metronomic precision of Ansermet’s reading a tad disconcerting, but when it’s played with this much élan it seems churlish to complain. There’s the obligatory tape hiss to contend with as well, but the ear quickly adjusts. Tempi are well judged in the Habanera, rhythms are sharply pointed in the Prelude to Act IV, and the flute- and harp-led music of the Act III Intermezzo is beautifully turned. The trumpets take on a sharp edge in La Garde montante and the dervish-like Danse bohémienne, but the warmth and weight of the strings help to compensate for that.
L’Arlésienne is less fortunate, though; this time it’s the strings that are a little too acid, the orchestra much more brightly lit than before. Some of the woodwind playing in Prélude is a little unsteady too, but the Minuetto is wonderfully supple; meanwhile, Ansermet gets the strings to sing most ardently in Adagietto. The brass is too fierce and climaxes are rather glassy in Carillon, but as always rhythms are very well judged and articulated. Minuet – borrowed from La jolie fille de Perth – is well contrasted too, with some lovely writing for flute and harp, the martial drumbeats of Farandole very atmospheric indeed. Such is the fizz and feistiness of this piece that the bright tuttis matter less than they otherwise might.
What a contrast with Patrie! a rather bombastic piece in memory of the Franco-Prussian War; the sound is much warmer, but the percussion is very woolly indeed. Remember, this was cutting-edge stuff in 1954, and I have to say these sonic limitations are far outweighed by Ansermet’s reading of this much-maligned piece. And that’s the nub of the matter; even though the quality of these recordings – and Bizet’s music – is so variable, the music-making is utterly irresistible.
Pleasure turns to astonishment with the Symphony in C, a discarded work premiered 80 years after it was written. Recorded 50 years ago, Ansermet’s version sounds freshly minted, the Mendelssohnian first movement superbly refined and lovingly phrased. This really is music-making of the highest order, strings smooth and silky, the horns apt to tingle the scalp. Ansermet finds just the right pulse for this freewheeling Allegro, the pizzicato strings of the Adagio adding elegance to ease. The Beethovenian Allegro that follows is classically proportioned and splendidly virile, the timps bold but never forceful. The final movement, which yokes together all these elements, is crisp and clear, Ansermet maintaining the music’s composure to the very end. The symphony alone makes this set a compulsory purchase.
This recording of Jeux d’enfants also dates from 1960, so I’m pleased to say it has all the warmth and weight one hears in the symphony. All five miniatures – the original version, for piano duet, contains twelve – find conductor and orchestra in genial mood, the opening Marche nicely scaled, Berceuse imbued with a wistful charm and Impromptu bursting with suppressed energy. Duo is played with real affection, Ansermet a natural when it comes to those gentle rhythms - and even gentler close. As for Galop – well, this is music with a warm smile, and I can’t remember a sunnier rendition than this. Yet another good reason to hear this lovely set.
It seems Donizetti wasn’t the only composer drawn to the works of Sir Walter Scott, whose Fair Maid of Perth was turned into a four-act opera by Bizet. It’s hardly everyday repertoire, but at least the suite gives one a good flavour of the piece. In this conductor’s hands Prélude has a balletic lightness, Sérénade and Marche less memorable but well turned out nonetheless. I couldn’t help thinking of Delibes and Adam in this and Danse bohémienne, as both eminently danceable. It’s pleasant enough, but I find a little of this music goes a very long way.
Given Bizet’s fondness for life south of the border, what better way to round off this set than with Spanish composer Joaquín Turina’s Danzas fantásticas. According to the liner-notes this recording is new to CD, which is surprising given both the appeal of this music and the quality of this performance. Ansermet is no stranger to Spanish music, so the rhythms are very well sprung. Oddly enough, this is not as orgiastic as the title might suggest, the mood surprisingly restrained throughout.
Another fine set from Eloquence, even if some of the music is very forgettable. No, the unmissable item here is the symphony, played – and recorded – to perfection. Add in the Carmen Suite and Jeux d’enfants and this set becomes very desirable indeed.