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France-Espagne – Les Siècles Live
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Suite de ballet du Cid [18:35]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
(from Images) [20:14]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 2012-14; Festival de La Chaisse-Dieu, Salle Pleyel, Paris, L’Archipel, Perpignan

I read in a concert programme once that "nobody does Spanish music better than the French".  This disc will remind you that that's true, but in a whole new way. Just as they did with their marvellous Stravinsky disc of 2014, period band Les Siècles have presented a programme of French music about Spain, played on period instruments from turn of the century Paris. Does it make a differences? You bet it does.  Just listen to the way España leaps out of your speakers, the winds glimmering in the light and the strings providing a wonderful bed of support that doesn't just cushion the sound but propels it along excitingly.  The brass are perhaps the most exciting and distinctive of all: listen to the fanfares at the 5-minute mark: they don't sound quite as clear as you'd expect from a contemporary orchestra, but the effect is marvellous in its own way.

The ballet music from Le Cid is a nice treat too, and it's carried every bit as successfully.  Each number purports to be a character dance from a different region of Spain, and that gives plenty of opportunities for effects and displays, not to mention the regular orchestral contributions, such as the knockout wind solos in the Madrilène.  I also found the tutti passages to be particularly crisp on-the-ear, something that also benefits Ravel's Alborada, but the most impressive here is the difference made by the winds, which sound sensational, and not just in the central section - though certainly there. The sound is less silky and sensuous than you might be used to, but it's also more dramatic and dynamic, with more pictorial flair than you might expect.  It helps, too, that Roth directs this music with such incomparable élan and a palpable sense of bounce throughout.

That same élan leads to a brilliant performance of Ibéria, and the opening walk through the streets has the colour of Spain but also the elegance of a Parisian flâneur, a heady mix.  There is busyness aplenty in Roth's reading, but also time to enjoy the view, and yet again it's the winds that really make the running.  Listen to the way the clarinet skirls its way through the opening theme, but then is transformed into something much darker and more sultry later in the movement.  The brass, too, have a beautifully relaxed swagger, and the percussion add not just colour but also flair.  That instrumental colour makes the sensual atmosphere of "Les parfums de la nuit" even more sultry — those chromatic wind scales and icy violin notes can seldom have sounded more overtly hedonistic. I loved the way the party atmosphere of the last movement emerges only slowly, the distant bells brilliantly suggestive and magically recorded.  When it does emerge into the full glow of daylight, the sound is bright, clear and clean.   Furthermore, with the period musicians of Les Siècles, Debussy's deconstruction of the orchestral sound and the highlighting of individual instruments can seldom have sounded more exciting and more revelatory.

This is, in short, a hit.  It's a good idea for a disc and it's done so brilliantly that it will appeal to newcomers as well as avowed Francophiles.  Incidentally, the recordings are live, and applause is kept in, but beyond that audience noise is negligible: they must have been wowed into silence.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and John Quinn


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