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Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
, rhapsodie pour orchestre (1883) [6:18]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Suite de ballet du Cid (1884) [17:55]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso
(1905-1918) [7:57]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
, extrait des Images pour orchestre (1905-08) [20:14]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 2012-14, Festival de la Chaise-Dieu; Salle-Pleyel, Paris; L’Archipel, Perpignan

François-Xavier Roth and his colleagues in the orchestra known as Les Siècles have established quite a reputation in recent years for their fascinating exploration of music from the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. They play this music on instruments that are either of the period or, occasionally, replicas thereof and they aspire to recreate the style of the period, partly through the sonorities that their instruments produce. All the stringed instruments use gut strings and the woodwind, brass and percussion instruments that are used here all date from the period 1884-1933 with most of those instruments manufactured between around 1890 and 1920. For this particular project the string band is not especially large – 12 first violins, 10 seconds. 8 violas, 7 cellos and 5 double basses with the wind and brass in proportion.

I’ve heard a couple of their previous discs. Their coupling of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrouchka was warmly welcomed by Dan Morgan earlier this year. On the strength of Dan’s review I bought that disc and also its companion which has as its centrepiece a stimulating performance of L’Oiseau de feu (ASM 06). I enjoyed both discs, relishing the novelty of the timbres that the period instruments bring to this music, colouring it in a way that’s so different from the brilliant modern-instrument sound to which we’re so accustomed. I see that in 2014 Jonathan Woolf reviewed a Dukas disc very positively though I’ve not heard that one.

Here they offer a programme, recorded at various live performances, in which French composers paint musical portraits of Spain.

Chabrier’s España was composed in 1883 in a flush of enthusiasm for Spain which he’d visited for the first time the previous year. It’s a thoroughly entertaining piece and here Roth and his players bring out the gaiety and colour. The playing is incisive but it has a softer edge compared to what modern instruments bring to the piece. This enjoyable opener whets the appetite for the rest of the programme.

Massenet’s suite comes from his four-act opera Le Cid (1884). The ballet opens Act II. We’re told in the notes that Massenet “drew on the essence of Spain by meticulously orchestrating traditional dances from a variety of Hispanic regions.” The result may not be profound music but it can be – and should be - great fun. The present performance may perhaps lack a Beechamesque twinkle in the eye but I found it very enjoyable. In the ‘Aragonaise’ the jota rhythms are nicely sprung and I love the mellow string sounds in the habañera-like ‘Andalouse’. In ‘Aubade’ the strings do really suggest the sound of a guitar while above their strumming the woodwind music positively sparkles. There is beguiling solo work from the flute and, especially, from the plaintive cor anglais in the first part of ‘Madrilène while the faster second part is invigorating. Finally, ‘Navarraise’ provides a vibrant, colourful finale.

I suppose that in both the Chabrier and Massenet performances by such luminaries as – in strict alphabetical order – Ansermet, Beecham or Munch may not be superseded. However, Roth and his team give sparkling performances that I enjoyed very much and the allure of the softer-grained period instruments is a source of pleasure.

In Ravel’s Alborada I think that perhaps Charles Dutoit’s jester has a bit more of a spring in his step in the 1981 Montreal recording (Decca). However, there’s still much to enjoy in Roth’s performance. I love the mellow timbre of the solo bassoon (1:54) and the silky, diaphanous strings that punctuate his solo are similarly a delight. From around 6:00 the woodwind section offers some ear-tickling sonorities, especially when they’re flutter-tonguing. Overall, I think there is brilliance to the performance but not in a technicolor sense.

In the first section of Iberia the sounds made by Les Siècles are often intriguing. However, I couldn’t escape a nagging feeling that the performance wasn’t giving me everything I look for. Sure enough, when I dug out an old favourite in the shape of Bernard Haitink’s 1977 Amsterdam recording (review) there was just a bit more life and spring in the music. The second section ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ is just the sort of music that ought to yield rewards when played by Les Siècles and so it proved. Here are sensuous sonorities and subtle, delicate sounds. This is a delight and, as I wrote in my notes, it’s a highlight of the whole disc. Roth handles the transition to ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ well but despite the excellence and elegance of the playing once the movement gets into its stride I felt it seemed just a bit subdued. At first I thought this could be because the instruments don’t have the cutting edge of their modern equivalents. However, comparison with the trusty Haitink shows that he conveys just a bit more acutely the bustle of an early morning street.

In summary, I think these performances are highly enjoyable and the sounds of the orchestra cast fresh light on the wonderful pieces that they play. The performances aren’t, I think, first choices per se; rather they complement the best recordings by “traditional” modern orchestras. Anyone who loves this music should try to hear the disc.

The recordings are taken from performances at no less than three concerts. Since the notes imply that what we’re hearing on this disc is a programme first given at the Festival de la Chaise-Dieu rather than individual items played at individual concerts I wonder how much editing has been done between the various performances? Nonetheless the recorded sound seems pretty consistent. There is vociferous applause after each of the four pieces but otherwise there is no real evidence that an audience is present. The booklet notes are brief but satisfactory.

I look forward to François-Xavier Roth casting further light on other music from this period.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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