French Orchestral Miniatures - Vol. 1
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Le roi s'amuse: Incidental Music (1882) [13:17]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Divertissement - Aubade (1872) [3:08]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Quatre pièces brèves (1869-90, orch. Büsser) [14:29]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Habañera (1885) [4:20]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Le Docteur Miracle: Overture (1857) [8:41]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Suite for Orchestra, Op. 49 (1877) [20:10]
Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia/Douglas Bostock
rec. June 1996, Dum Hubny, Pardubice, Czech Republic
previously issued as ClassicO CLASSCD158

This series is poorly named on two counts. In my book, an eight-minute overture like Bizet's Le Docteur Miracle isn't a "miniature"; neither are multi-movement suites like those of Saint-Saëns or Delibes, even if the individual movements of the latter are brief. In marketing terms, the title suggests a program comprising some of the "bittier" pieces of, say, Debussy, Bizet, and Ravel - a Pops-ish hodgepodge of the sort most collectors won't want or need. In fact, the situation is quite the reverse. Bizet's overture hasn't turned up before, as far as I know; I believe the Saint-Saëns suite and the orchestrated Franck set have, but they're not easy to find.
The music is good. The Bizet is, perhaps not surprisingly, a lively, Offenbachish medley. The delightfully perky Aubade movement from Lalo's Divertissement makes me curious about the rest of the score. Chabrier's Habañera, with liquid clarinets coloring the rhythmic accompaniment, is languid rather than bouncy. Henri Büsser's orchestrations of Franck's short pieces are pleasing, though only the haunting flute-dominated textures after 1:26 in the fourth piece suggest the organ original.
Douglas Bostock redeems the unfortunate impression left by his dreadful rendering of thirteen Dvorák Slavonic Dances in Intercord's "Royal Philharmonic Collection"; also on Tring. As I remarked at the time, at first I was annoyed not to have all the dances; afterwards, I was grateful for the three that we were spared. Here, however, his flowing, lyrical conducting is attentive to details of mood, capturing the rhythmic swing at the start of the Bizet, the prayerful undertone to the Sarabande in the Saint-Saëns and the tenderness of the Madrigal in the Delibes suite. The "Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia," whatever that might be, responds alertly, producing clear textures and compact tuttis, with a tapered phrasing that is typically Czech.
Why a chamber orchestra? Granted, the ensemble isn't that much smaller than the pit bands in some local European theatres, so such performances don't overtly misrepresent the stage pieces. The Lalo, which relies on woodwind color, sounds just fine. In the Swan Lake-ish Romance of the Saint-Saëns, the peaks blossom nicely. Elsewhere - the third theme of the Bizet, for example - the clean, carefully blended strings can't muster the required tonal body. The ethereal high violin note at 3:05 of the Habañera could have been magical with a few more players. In the Délibes suite, an affectionate Baroque hommage, there aren't enough cellos to allow the themes of the Madrigal and the shapely Scène du bouquet properly to blossom. Bostock's characterful, expressive account of this last must yield to the venerable Beecham version (EMI Classics 6318162), where the firmly weighted sound of the full-sized Royal Philharmonic allows for a wider tonal and expressive palette.
Still, the innovative program is a must-have for Compleat Compleatists. The de luxe packaging is handsome, though I'd have preferred not to have to cut open the slipcase to extricate the jewel box; the notes on the program leaflet are minimal. Now, can someone explain how a French program performed by Czech players and an American conductor ends up on "Scandinavian Classics"?
Stephen Francis Vasta

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

An innovative program... a must-have for Compleat Compleatists.

see also review by Rob Barnett of original Classico release