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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1 (1872) [18:42]
L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2 (arr. Ernest Guiraud) (1879) [17:23]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Masques et Bergamasques - Suite for orchestra, Op. 112 (1919) [15:03]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - Ballet music (1859) [18:39]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Kazuki Yamada
rec. February 2013, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from Qobuz
PENTATONE PTC5186358 SACD [69:56]

Talk about bearding the lion in his den; the young Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada is brave to take on Ernest Ansermet’s orchestra and his repertoire all at once. Not only that, this recording – the first in a series devoted to music with theatrical connections – was made in Geneva’s Victoria Hall, scene of so many Ansermet/Decca triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s. The OSR wasn’t a front-rank ensemble in those days – some might say it still isn’t - but such was the magic of their partnership with the feisty Ansermet that it hardly mattered.
 
I wish I could be as complimentary about their more recent recordings with musical/artistic director Neeme Järvi; I’ve reviewed the Chandos Studio Masters of them playing Chabrier and Raff, and while there are things to enjoy Järvi is not the podium powerhouse he once was. Perhaps under Yamada, their new principal guest conductor, the OSR might be able to rekindle that old fire; however, sampling Ansermet’s 1958 L’Arlésienne – admittedly not one of Decca’s best – reminds one just how high the bar has been set (review).
 
PentaTone recordings are known for their technical excellence, and that – coupled with the cutting-edge recording facilities in the Victoria Hall – should ensure exemplary sound at least. And so it proves, for the first suite Prélude combines admirable precision with ear-pricking detail. Also, those march rhythms are crisp, if a tad lacking in hauteur; even at this stage Yamada strikes me as meticulous – tentative, even – and that robs the performance of dynamism and flair. After all this music was written to accompany a play, and Ansermet - a man of the theatre - had a feel for dramatic shape and thrust that's hard to beat.
 
The OSR play very well for Yamada, who certainly has a good ear for blushful blends and poised pianissimi. That said there’s a fastidious quality to the Adagietto that I don'r care for, and the pealing horns in Carillon aren’t as thrilling as they should be. There are some lovely passages though, just not enough of them. Indeed, I longed for this conductor to take a few risks, to loosen the brakes a little, but that’s not his way.
 
I’ve never found the second suite, arranged by Ernest Guirard, to be as subtle or as varied as the first, but in Yamada’s hands the Pastorale has welcome lift and energy; as for the Intermezzo it’s seductively shaped. The Menuetto is simply ravishing though, and the harp is ideally placed in the mix. At moments like these it’s as if one were in the concert hall, entranced at this unfolding loveliness and wishing it would never end. The Farandole, which brings the suite to a close, has all the pulse and push one could wish for, and while I’d have liked a bit more air around the orchestra the recording is first class.
 
Yamada’s Bizet is enjoyable enough – at times it’s more than that – but his suites left me feeling oddly bereft. Perhaps it’s a case of sky-high expectations that are almost impossible to fulfil. His account of Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques - written to accompany a one-act divertissement - is also well executed; the nimble woodwinds are particularly impressive. That said, there’s a creeping anonymity to the performance that’s rather dispiriting.
 
On the plus side I did warm to Yamada's way with the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust; the Nubian waltz has point and elegance and the Adagio is beautifully blended. Sheer loveliness isn’t enough, for it has to be leavened with touches of life and levitation if it’s not to seem like a limo ride – supremely comfortable but ultimately rather dull. Even the Danse de Phryné lacks that last degree of energy and excitement. Which brings me to Nick Barnard’s review of Yamada’s recent Exton disc, which he characterised as ‘too considered and cautious’ (review). That’s my overriding impression here too.
 
Make no mistake Kazuki Yamada is a man to watch, and despite my misgivings I look forward to the next instalment in this theatree-themed cycle (Strauss, Korngold and Schreker). The Qobuz download process is simplicity itself and their price is slightly lower than that on PentaTone’s own website. Downloadable artwork and a pdf booklet are included.
 
Gorgeous playing and a fine recording; alas, the performances lack character.
 
Dan Morgan
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