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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in C (1855)* [33:34]
Petite Suite d’orchestre, op. 22 (Jeux d’Enfants) (1872)* [11:05]
Roma, Suite for orchestra No.3 (1861-71, published 1880)* [31:22]
Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Järvi
rec. Salle Pleyel, Paris, 18-19 November 2009 (* live), 20-21 November 2009**. DDD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6286130 [75:54]

Experience Classicsonline
The first two items on this CD are well represented in the catalogue, with strong competition from classic versions by Beecham and Ansermet, but Roma is not at all well represented, with apparently just five versions in the current catalogue, one of which is rather elderly: you may well feel that the CD is worth purchasing for that one item alone. Beecham’s recording of just the 7-minute Carnaval from Roma seems currently not to be listed, though passionato.com offer it as an mp3 or lossless download (3799852, with Bizet’s Patrie Overture, Carmen Suite, and music by Chabrier, Fauré and Saint-Saëns - here).

My benchmark for the Symphony has to be the classic recording from the French National Radio Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and coupled with the two suites from l’Arlésienne on EMI Great Recordings 5672312 – see review. A close runner-up is the recording by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Ernest Ansermet, now available on a three-CD set from Australian Eloquence (480 0457 – see review) or coupled with Jeux d’enfants and the suite from la jolie fille de Perth on High Definition Tape Transfers HDCD185 in a wonderful 24-bit/96kHz transcription which I reviewed in the November 2010 Download Roundup – see review, which also includes Dan Morgan’s very warm welcome, even in preference to the Eloquence set which he had made Bargain of the Month.

The Symphony was never performed or published in Bizet’s lifetime – it had to wait until Weingartner did the honours in 1935. Its youthful charm, in the right hands, is instantly winning. It’s often compared with the works of Haydn and Mozart, to which I would add Mendelssohn’s early String Symphonies and Schubert’s first six. The new performance is enjoyable in its own terms – it seems to press most of the right buttons until it’s compared with Beecham and Ansermet.

Beecham in particular had the knack of making decent second-rate music sound superb and he worked his magic to good effect in 1959 on Bizet and on the original coupling, the Lalo Symphony. When may we have that companion piece back, please, EMI? Ansermet makes the work sound magical, too, especially in that 24-bit refurbishment from HDTT.

Other conductors have also been successful: I’m thinking, for example, of a BBC Radio 3 broadcast in May 2007, when Nicholas McGegan conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a performance which rivalled even Beecham. That concert also included a performance of a perfect companion piece, Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E for two pianos. Would it be too much to hope that someone might release those two performances on CD?

In this distinguished company, the new recording makes the Symphony sound merely a good second-league work, with tempi a shade on the ponderous side throughout. The same is true of Jeux d’enfants: once again, good as the performance is in many respects, it lacks the joie de vivre which Ansermet brings to it. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande may be no match for their Paris rivals, but the latter sound just a little too ‘big’ for the music. Stay with Beecham for the Symphony, Ansermet or the more recent François-Xavier Roth account (Mirare MIR036, coupled with Chabrier) for that and Jeux d’enfants.

Bizet struggled for over a decade between 1861 and 1871 before finally abandoning work on Roma. Despite the title, the original concept embraced Venice, Florence and Naples as well as Rome. I hadn’t heard the work in its entirety before and I have to say that I think Bizet was correct to abandon it. Even the author of the Virgin notes can’t summon much enthusiasm for it, merely offering a guarded comment that “the most successful movement is usually considered to be the scherzo” (my italics – doesn’t she agree with that belief?) and that the work as a whole is “by no means lacking in elegance colour and drama.” That sounds to me like damning with faint praise, which is about right.

Järvi makes a good case for the work – rather better than he does for the other two pieces: in the one movement where comparisons are possible, he actually adopts a tempo slightly faster than Beecham. Live performance usually brings greater intensity, but in this case the effect is reversed: the studio performance is better than the two live versions which precede it. Ultimately, however, the work remains a mixed blessing. I’ve seen Roma described as startlingly neglected, but I really can’t concur.

Despite my initial high hopes, good recording and excellent notes, translated into idiomatic English, I found this a rather disappointing CD.

Brian Wilson
 


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