Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Ballet music from the operas
see end of review for track-list
Orquestra Simfónica de Barcelona i Nacional Catalunya (Barcelona Symphony Orchestra)/Michał Nesterowicz
rec. 3-6 July 2012, L’Auditori, Pau Casals Hall, Barcelona, Spain
NAXOS 8.573076 [69:40]

These Naxos opera-ballet collections are really rather good. The Verdi instalment, with José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, was a well-deserved Recording of the Month and Brian Reinhart described the Massenet one as ‘a peach’ (review). I’ve heard the latter, and I must agree. I was particularly impressed with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, new to me then, so I wasted no time when this new Meyerbeer CD came up for review. On this occasion they are conducted by Michał Nesterowicz, in his debut recording for Naxos.
This band and maestro may be relative unknowns, but in his heyday Meyerbeer was the world’s most celebrated opera composer. The history of 19th-centiry opera would have been so different without him; not only did he put the grand into grand opera he also influenced the likes of Halévy, Donizetti and Verdi, and endorsed Wagner as well. He was a talented tunesmith, and it’s testimony to his artistic reach that so many of his contemporaries’ works have their ‘Meyerbeer moments’; that’s especially true of their ballet music, which was essential for operatic success in Paris at the time.
Few operas are more spectacular than Les Huguenots, a grand and grisly tale that ends with the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. As expected the gypsy ballet from Act 3 is just a trifle, albeit a mouth-watering one. It blends Italian flavours with a dash of Germanic seasoning, both elements of which are teased out in this fresh, well-sprung account. I was a little surprised to see so many items from Robert le Diable, Meyerbeer’s first big hit, but any reservations are soon forgotten in a seemingly endless carousel of delectable tunes. Nesterowicz has the lightness of touch that this music demands, yet he’s unfailingly dramatic too; just listen to his thrilling conclusion to the Pas de cinq (tr. 2).
As much as I enjoyed the Massenet disc, conducted by Patrick Gallois, I do prefer Nesterowicz’s added spontaneity and supple, very danceable rhythms. He also brings out Robert le Diable’s spookier moments very well indeed; he’s aided and abetted by some highly atmospheric playing and a decent recording. The bass could be a little tighter – it loses focus at times – but the treble is clean and fatigue-free; also, the engineers have done a fair job of conveying the hall’s acoustic. Timps are generally well caught and the woodwinds play with a winning sense of style, especially in the burbling Séduction par le jeu (tr. 6). It’s a mark of Nesterowicz’s skill that one can listen to the entire collection in one sitting without ever losing interest.
One of Meyerbeer’s less-well-known operas, the Russian-themed L'Étoile du Nord, is not without its charms either; for a start it has a melting, harp-led Prayer. Le Prophète opens with a dynamic, nicely proportioned Ballet of the Skaters, a witty reference to the craze sweeping Paris. The Redowa evokes the spirit of old Vienna – there’s some nimble, turn-on-a-sixpence playing here – although the Quadrilles are a bit cumbersome at times. A momentary lapse, merely, for the ensuing Galop brims with brio – what a laugh-out-load finale – while the Indian March from L'Africaine is sensibly paced and sounds far less clichéd than usual.
This is a most entertaining collection with just a few dull moments – Meyerbeer’s fault, not Nesterowicz’s – and, as expected, the orchestra really enters into the spirit of this music. The sonics aren’t as clean or as analytical as I’d like; for instance the side drum in the Indian March barely registers. Then again I have been listening to a few Blu-ray Audio discs lately, so anything else is apt to sound a bit woolly. Come to think of it a BD-A version of this CD would be most welcome.
One or two dull patches can’t take the shine off this engaging disc; great fun.
Dan Morgan
Les Huguenots (1836)
Act 3: Danse bohémienne [4:46]
Robert le Diable (excerpts)
Act 2: Pas de cinq [9:28]
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Les Feux Follets et Procession des nonnes [3:53]
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Bacchanale [5:00]
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Premier Air de Ballet: Séduction par l'ivresse [2:19]
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Deuxième Air de Ballet: Séduction par le jeu [3:20]  
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Troisième Air de Ballet: Sêduction par l'amour [2:34]
Act 3: Ballet des Nonnes: Finale [1:36]
L'Étoile du Nord (1854) (excerpts)
Act 2: Waltz [3:32]
Act 2: Chanson de cavalerie [1:18]
Act 1: Prayer [2:23]
Entr'acte to Act 3 [2:02]
Le Prophète (1849) (excerpts)
Act 3: Ballet des Patineurs: Waltz [1:41]
Act 3: Ballet des Patineurs: Redowa [7:08]
Act 3: Ballet des Patineurs: Quadrilles des patineurs [4:48]
Act 3: Ballet des Patineurs: Galop [5:01]
L'Africaine (1865) (excerpts)
Act 4: Marche indienne [8:51]


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