Two earlier issues of operas by Grétry had already convinced me that he is a composer worth exploring further. The experience of listening to this most desirable set adds emphasis to that view. Even more than the earlier issues it shows that his work went well beyond mere rococo prettiness and that in his ability to characterise in music he was a natural operatic composer whose works demand to be a regular part of the normal repertoire. Perhaps those companies now determined to record endless sets of the operas of Vivaldi and his contemporaries might with advantage turn their attentions to the much more varied, succinct and entertaining works of Grétry and his contemporaries.
This set resembles those cunningly compiled boxes regularly produced by Brilliant Classics in assembling a series of recordings from a variety of dates and sources so that their overall effect greatly exceeds the sum of the parts. It comprises three discs of opera, each with extracts from a single work, one of string quartets and one of “transcriptions and adaptations”. You might initially begrudge the missed opportunity of yet more operatic extracts on the last disc, but in practice it is full of delights, albeit at times only distantly related to Grétry.
The first disc is nonetheless probably the best. It contains a series of extracts – almost the whole – from La Caravanne du Caire, said to be one of the composer’s best operas and certainly the most imaginative, varied and entertaining of those I have heard. It is set in a Middle Eastern country where westerners are held as slaves by Arabs. The composer makes the most of the opportunities it presents for unusual instrumentation and fashionably exotic effects. No date is given for the recording, which I understand is available complete from other sources, but under Marc Minkowski’s lively direction it is gripping throughout. Like the other operatic extracts, the majority of the cast are French speaking, and the clarity of their diction is remarkable and adds much to the listener’s enjoyment even if, like me, only parts of it can be understood. The set’s only serious defect is the absence of printed text or translations, but with such excellent performances it would be regrettable if this dissuaded you from purchase.
The other two sets sound to have been recorded earlier, with voices well forward and the orchestra sounding less like the period instrument groups we can take for granted on more recent versions. Again, however, the virtues of the performances, with many well remembered French singers, far exceed these defects, with wonderfully characterful singing and a real sense of the theatre, especially in the many ensemble numbers.
The third disc comprises a set of six string quartets published in 1773, each in several movements none exceeding five minutes in length, even with repeats. These are entertaining if by no means profound works; perhaps a French equivalent of the quartets of, say, Charles Wesley. They are played with charm and finesse by the Quatuor Haydn whose members are not credited individually.
The final disc contains several vocal numbers arranged by Ignace Vitzthumb with smaller instrumental accompaniment, arrangements by Dussek of two Overtures for keyboard with violin accompiment, sets of variations on airs by Grétry by Mozart and Boëly, the former markedly superior, and two virtuoso but very empty piano transcriptions by Godefroid. Finally comes a real curiosity – a sparkling piano duet by the young César Franck whose author would come as a surprise in any musical quiz. All are played and sung with energy and enthusiasm and this makes a surprisingly effective compilation as a whole.
Overall this is a set whose contents have been chosen with care and discrimination to whet the appetite to hear more of Grétry’s work. It certainly made me very eager to hear more, preferably in live theatrical performance, but in the meantime I have been very happy to enjoy repeated hearings of these discs.
Full Details of Contents
CD 1 [79:49]
Extracts from La Caravanne du Caire (1784)
Le Pacha – Jules Bastin (bass); Tamorin – Gilles Ragon (tenor); Florestan – Phillippe Huttenlocher (baritone); Saint-Phar – Guy de Mey (tenor); Husca – Vincent Le Texier (baritone); Zélime – Isabelle Poulenard (soprano); Almaide – Greta de Reyghere (soprano); Une esclave française – Mari-Noëlle de Callatay (soprano); Une esclave allemande – Els Crommen (soprano); Une coryphée – Marie-Paule Fayt (soprano); Osmin – John Dur (bass); Furville – Claude Massoz
Choeur de chamber de Namur; Ricercar Academy/Marc Minkowski
CD 2 [65:11]
Extracts from L’amant jaloux ou les fausses apparences (1778)
Léonore – Mady Mesplé (soprano); Don Alonze – Bruce Brewer (tenor); Florival – Charles Burles (tenor); Lopez – Jules Bastin (bass); Isabelle – Danielle Perriers (soprano); Jacinte – Christiane Chateau (soprano)
Orchestre de la RTBF/Edgard Doneux
CD 3 [59:05]
Extracts from Le jugement de Midas (1778)
Apollon – Louis Devos (tenor); Midas – Jean-Jacques Schreurs (tenor); Lise – Bernadette Degalin (soprano); Chloé – Loretta Clini (soprano); Palémon – Chris de Moor (bass); Mopsa – Katarina Moessen (soprano); Marsyas – Zeger Vadersteene (tenor); Pan – Jo Baert (bass);
Orchestra de la RTBF/Ronald Zollman
CD 4 [53:44]
Six Quartets Op III
CD 5 [63:20] Transcriptions and Adaptations
Jan Ludislav DUSSEK (1760-1812) Arrangement of the Overture to Zémire et Azor [4:08]
Arrangement of the Overture to Le jugement de Midas [4:17]
Ignace VITZTHUMB (1724-1816) Arrangements of “Il vous souvient de cette fête” from La Fausse Magie [4:33]
“O ciel! Entends la voix d’un père” from La rosière de Salency [4:09] and “D’une nymphe elle a le corsage” from Les marriages samnites [3:11]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Eight variations on “Dieu d’amour” from Le jugement de Midas [14:40]
Alexandre-Pierre-François BOËLY (1785-1858) Seven variations on “La danse n’est pas ce que j’aime” from Richard Coeur-de-Lion [9:34]
Félix GODEFROID (1818-1897) Transcriptions of “Une fièvre brûlante” from Richard Coeur-de-Lion [4:45]
and “Tandis que tout sommeille” from L’amant jaloux [3:56]
César FRANCK (1822-1890) Second piano duet on the quartet from Lucile [9:37]
Guy Penson, Sylvia Bernier (pianos); Dirk Vandaele (violin); Elise Gäbele (soprano); Thibaut Lenaerts (tenor); Caroline Bayet, Marie Haag (violin); Bernard Wolfèche (cello)