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Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales (Ports of Call) (1922) [15:03]
Sarabande pour Dulcinée (1933) [3:33]
Ouverture de fęte (1940) [13:28]
Féerique (1924) [6:46]
Divertissement (1930) [15:46]
Hommage ā Mozart (1956) [4:56]
Suite symphonique - Paris (1930) [13:22]
Bacchanale (1956) [8:22]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
rec. 25-27 June 2015, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from The Classical Shop
Pdf booklet included

Neeme Järvi and the OSR, Ernest Ansermet’s old band, are very busy these days. I’ve reviewed their Chandos recordings of Chabrier and Offenbach, both of which I enjoyed, so I had high hopes for this Ibert collection. Not only is it a tantalising programme, at more than 80 minutes’ playing time it’s also a very generous one. As ever there are rivals out there, among them a multi-conductor set from EMI-Warner and single discs from Charles Dutoit (Decca) and Yutaka Sado (Naxos).

Given that the most recent of those recordings dates from 1996 it’s high time someone revisited this entertaining repertoire. Are Järvi and the OSR up to the job? Rome-Palerme, the first leg of Escales, a musical tour, has a shimmering, Faun-like intro that’s attractively played and recorded. Järvi is brisker than most thereafter; he’s not one to dawdle, as his recent recordings confirm, and that makes his performances seem a little brusque at times. There’s a hint of inflexibility too – the rhythms of Tunis-Nefta aren’t as supple as they might be – and although his account of Valence is arresting it could do with a touch of Iberian temperament.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being too harsh I switched to Dutoit, whose programme is almost identical to Järvi's. The fizz and fun of those Montreal performances, recorded in 1992, is a joy to hear; and while the Decca sound isn’t as refined it has terrific blaze and brilliance. Back to Järvi, and I have minor reservations about his response to the little Sarabande pour Dulcinée, written for the 1933 film Don Quichotte. It may be well played but it lacks charm. The recording, engineered by Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper, has ample weight and presence; that said, it's very analytical, which adds a degree of coolness to the mix.

No qualms about the Ouverture de fęte, commissioned to celebrate 600 years of the Japanese empire. It’s a thrilling piece – what a spine-tingling start – and the recording's fearless dynamics do it full justice. However, Dutoit’s performance has a lift, a high-stepping hauteur, that I don’t hear in Järvi's; that certainly helps to minimise the music's incipient bluster. Järvi and the OSR are equally robust in the ironically titled Féerique; the muscular timps and cower-in-your-seat cymbal clashes are especially well caught. Despite those felicities this is a reading to respect rather than to love.

That’s the nub of it; conductor and orchestra fit together like the precisely machined cogs in a Swiss timepiece, and while that suits the straight display pieces it doesn’t always work in the more elliptical ones. Take the Divertissement, derived from the incidental music Ibert wrote for the comedy Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat). Dutoit really understands the score’s essential frivolity, its street music and its Satie-esque silliness. Järvi doesn’t quite capture the feel and flavour of the first five movements, although he does find plenty of scoot and skitter in the sixth; the players really seem to be enjoying themselves at this point.

We take a few steps backwards with the Hommage ā Mozart, a French Radio commission; as before it’s stylishly done, but for wit and sparkle Dutoit and the OSM are hard to beat. Next up is the Symphonic Suite, which Ibert adapted from his incidental music for the play Donogoo-Tonka. Originally set in a fictional South-American country the subsequent suite relocates to Paris. Dutoit is in his element here, revelling in the highly evocative sights and sounds of the French capital. At moments like these one realises just how much this repertoire benefits from a pinch of good humour and a dash of spontaneity.

To be fair, Järvi is quite relaxed - even genial - in this piece. His Métro has the requisite sway and clatter, the trumpet playing in Faubourgs is superb and the quiet exoticism of La Mosquée de Paris is beautifully judged. The jazzy Restaurant au Bois de Boulogne is a feast of good tunes, and the climactic Parade Foraine has all the bounce and swagger it needs. The recording handles the music’s dynamic swings with ease, and there’s a thrilling heft to the sound that Decca engineers can’t match.

Järvi and the OSR may have taken a while to warm up, but it was worth the wait. The Bacchanale, commissioned to celebrate both the tenth anniversary of the BBC’s Third Programme and the bicentenary of Mozart’s birth, is one of Ibert’s most memorable creations. The debt to Saint-Saëns’s potboiler is all too evident, but that’s just a small part of this good-natured little number. And the transported playing of the OSR is proof that, despite Orson Welles’ wry comment in The Third Man, Switzerland has given us more than just the cuckoo clock.

Järvi doesn’t eclipse Dutoit, but he comes close; seriously good sonics.

Dan Morgan



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