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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Le Cid: Suite de ballet (1885 [19.36]
Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge * (1877-78) [4.23]
Le Roi de Lahore Overture (1876) [5.48]
Fantaisie * (1896-97) [17.24]
Ouverture de Phèdre (1874) [9.20]
Scène religieuse from Les Érinnyes * (1872) [5.09]
Entr’acte Sevillana from Don César de Bazan (1872) [2.33]
Scènes pittoresques (1874) [16.29]
Additional track available as a free download:
Méditation from Thaïs * (1894) [5.48]
Truls Mørk (cello) *
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland; 11-12 July 2013

Here’s a new development in CD/download marketing. As an extra inducement Chandos are offering a free download of another Massenet piece – one of his most famous – the Méditation from Thaïs. I should warn readers of a small fly in the ointment though. There is a mistake in the CD’s booklet – the route to this download is to be found here. By the way I am far from sure that further inducement was necessary when the disc already runs to 80+ minutes of music. You won’t find anyone complaining.
Now let’s move on to the content of this generously-filled CD. Massenet is justly famous for his popular, often sweet, sentimental operas, notably Manon and Werther. His orchestral music remains much less celebrated and is not as well known. This new Järvi recording is distinguished by vibrant performances in very good and finely balanced sound. It propels this collection to the top of its few competitive recordings.
Massenet was a prolific and versatile composer adapting styles to suit story and temperament. His music is richly colourful as is very evident in the suite that opens this collection. The popular, melodic ballet music from Le Cid is cast in seven vivacious Spanish dance movements celebrating the arrival of Spring. Each section is thrillingly or enchantingly melodic; one memorable tune follows on from another, from beginning to end. I challenge any listener to be able to keep still through this music. The ‘Castillane’, ‘Aragonaise’ and Navarraise’ all have well-known, vivacious refrains, proud, confident and full of Spanish allure. The lovely ‘Madrilène’ begins sadly. Introspectively languorous and sinuous music for the winds is followed by another exciting dance that upstages the three already mentioned. Of the other three sections: ‘Andalouse’ is full of sensual languor, flirtatious with barely restrained passion, ‘Aubade’ is a field day for the woodwinds and pizzicato strings, and ‘Catalane’ is more solemn at least for the strings and brass while the woodwinds try to lighten the mood. The collection closes with the contrasting four-movement suite, Scènes pittoresques. Its highlight is the lovely, serene ‘Angelus’ with forced brassy horns imitating church bells while the ‘Air de Ballet’ has some entrancing woodwind material in its Tchaikovskian middle section. The best known music in this suite is the peppy and brilliant ‘Fête bohême’.
In between there are three pieces that showcase the expressive and technical talents of the cellist, Truls Mørk. Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge was the saving grace of one of Massenet’s flops – his ‘Légende sacrée’ La Vierge, receiving three encores at the premiere. It became one of Sir Thomas Beecham’s ‘lollipops’. A second piece here with cello solo is another Scène religieuse from Les Érinnyes – this time the setting is classical mythology with Elektra at the tomb of her murdered father, Agamemnon. The main work for cello and orchestra, here, is the little-known Fantaisie, and what a find it is. Bright and breezy, it starts with a demonstrative flourish before the music briskly sets off. Cantering figures play a prominent role in the work’s first nine-minute section which includes material that is martial in character contrasted with dreamy lyrical interludes. The brief middle section is cheeky and comic; the cello soloist’s pomposity is challenged by sardonic comments from the rest of the orchestra while the concluding section is very animated with more lyricism as earlier. The level of inspiration here is considerable with some very imaginative scoring – no wonder it impressed Reynaldo Hahn.
Equally impressive is Massenet’s Overture to Phèdre; it certainly impressed Debussy. Phèdre is based on the tale of the Cretan princess who falls in love with her stepson with consequent tragedy. Massenet’s overture is appropriately intense, urgent, anguished and doom-laden yet he is sympathetic to Phèdre’s plight giving her one of his most gorgeous heart-stopping melodies.
Of the remaining items the Overture to Le Roi de Lahore eschews exotic elements in favour of a mix of ceremonial fanfares, combative material and sweetly romantic melody. Finally the Entr’acte Sevillana from Don César de Bazan is a very brief confection - another exciting colourful Spanish dance, spiced with castanets.
A rich, spicy feast. The best recording yet of Massenet’s too-often-forgotten orchestral music
Ian Lace