Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L'Arlésienne: Suite No. 1 (1872) [18:14]
La jolie fille de Perth: Suite (1867) [12:44]
Roma Symphony (1869) [33:01]
Patrie Overture, Op 19 (1874) [13:01]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery
rec. data not given
In music too easily dismissed as Pops fodder, John Lanchbery's care over expressive detail is gratifying. In the L'Arlésienne suite, for example, after a vigorous statement of the Prélude's theme in unison strings, the clarinet's liquid, plaintive phrasing that follows is affecting. Similarly, it's easy enough to bring out the soaring line in the central section of the Intermezzo; Lanchbery's shaping of the counter-melody is also graceful and lilting. The buoyant delicacy of the excerpts from La jolie fille de Perth reflects the conductor's background in the ballet pit. Even the Patrie overture, where one might have expected bombast, here proves a work of considerable charm.
The problems come with Roma. Truth be told, the score isn't as bad as its reputation - no doubt the fresh, youthful Symphony in C has cast a long shadow over this later, more ambitious work - and there's some gorgeous music in it. The inner movements - an infectious, imposing scherzo not unlike that of the earlier symphony, and a yearning Andante molto - are particularly striking.
The expressive, horn-dominated chorale, intensified by the tang of mild dissonance, that begins and ends the first movement is similarly affecting. The turbulent body of the movement is less so. It's well enough wrought, but the musical gestures are generic and self-conscious - rather like the wrong things about Liszt, though Bizet's tunes are better, and we're spared the chains of diminished seventh harmonies with which Liszt liked to migrate from point to point.
Even so, this would hardly represent an insurmountable obstacle, were it not for the engineering. The "long" ambience, which elsewhere enhances the colour and texture of the lightly scored passages, here proves counterproductive, turning the melodramatic tuttis opaque and monochromatic. Here the finale is a total loss: the theme and the tarantella rhythms are fetching enough, but the relentless din reduces the movement to so much empty-headed fustian.
On the positive side, of the handful of ABC Classics discs I've heard - Stateside listeners should note that this is the Australian Broadcasting Company, not the American - this one offers the most polished orchestral playing. The woodwinds are limpid and expressive in their solo turns. I've already cited the clarinet; the flute solos in La jolie fille de Perth are touchingly fragile. The horns are firm, full-throated, and eloquent in the Roma chorale. The string tone can be a bit diffuse, but they muster ample tonal body, and their phrasing is always musical.
Despite this issue's many virtues, the engineering earns it a qualified recommendation, at best - and we're still waiting for a first-class recording of Roma. Recording venues and dates are not provided, but there's an original publication date of 1999.

Stephen Francis Vasta
New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Many virtues the engineering on this issue earns it a qualified recommendation, at best.

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