Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales… (1922) [15:03]
Sarabande pour Dulcinée (1932) [3:33]
Ouverture de fête (1940) [13:28]
Féerique (1924) [6:46]
Divertissement (1930) [15:46]
Hommage à 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

Jacques Ibert is probably known to listeners not specialising in French music mainly or even exclusively through his Divertissement. Those in that situation will likely be enchanted by the colour and vitality of other orchestral works by the composer presented in this compilation from the same forces who have already recorded acclaimed sets of little-known interludes, extracts, and overtures by Massenet and Offenbach. It is the Divertissement in this latest disc which is disappointing on account of the somewhat rigid performance by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande who fail to let their hair down and realise the fun and irony of the work. To single out one infelicity, the unacknowledged piano soloist appears to take the bashed-out chords of the Finale’s opening seriously as atonal clusters, rather than the simple clatters of sound they actually are, resulting from the instrument’s being smashed about in Ibert’s raucous programme for the composition. Livelier recordings will be found elsewhere, with another version on Chandos by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Ulster Orchestra perhaps remaining a favourite, whilst I heard the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on high-spirited form in an entertaining concert of delightful ‘French Fancies’ back in February 2014, showing what a period performance ensemble can do with the work.

Neeme Järvi’s seriousness of approach with the orchestra serves a better purpose in the opening fugato of the Ouverture de fête, where momentum is sustained excellently both there and in the two subsequent sections which all lead to impressive climaxes like a threefold wave. As elsewhere in the readings on this disc, the performance remains lucid, despite the lavishness of Ibert’s scoring: for example, some Wagnerian brass-writing at the first climax is transparently handled here, whilst in the quieter section which follows that, it is audible that the running triplets in the accompanying strings are expressively turned, not mechanically spun out. The fine balance of both performance and recording also does justice to the clarity of texture in the recurring theme of the Hommage à Mozart, which is really a neo-classical tribute to that composer rather than a straightforward pastiche. Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a similar inspiration in that respect.

The two other significant works by Ibert on this disc – Escales and the Suite Symphonique – as well as the shorter Féerique unsurprisingly all owe something to the style of Debussy and Ravel. Escales is a suite of three movements which each conjure up a different place through shimmering, impressionistic sounds. The solo flute and oboe at the opening of the first and second movements (Rome-Palermo and Tunis-Nefta) respectively are poised and calm, standing in well-defined contrast to the subsequent sensuous orchestral tissue of these musical postcards. Järvi picks it all out with ideally judged tempos. The final movement refers to Valencia, and consists of a vibrant dance, with Chabrier’s España and the last section of Debussy’s Ibéria from the orchestral Images standing as obvious points of comparison. With those in mind, the OSR here lose their way a little in failing to maintain a suitably feverish rhythmic rush towards the end. Charles Munch’s recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the RCA label remains the benchmark for its vivid and characterful evocation of place throughout the whole composition.

Järvi captures the scenes of Paris explored in the Suite Symphonique sensitively, though again the final Parade could let itself loose with more wild abandon. Where his performances really score on this disc are in those sections requiring a lush or languid texture from the orchestra. The strings in particular oblige with their glossy, unruffled timbre in Féerique, the Sarabande pour Dulcinée, and the more lyrical central passage of the Bacchanale. That said, the orchestra give out the restless, hammered music of the latter work’s outer sections impressively.

Overall this release offers an attractive introduction to Ibert’s exquisitely crafted orchestral music. A double EMI set with a variety of conductors and orchestras offers a competitive alternative to some of the works presented here, alongside some other pieces absent from this disc.

Curtis Rogers

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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