Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo; rhapsodie hébraïque (1916) [20:08]
Henri SAUGUET (1901-1989)
Symphony No.1 “Expiatoire” (1945) [44:08]
Maurice Maréchal (cello)
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Ernest Bour
rec. live 22 September 1952 (Bloch) and 23 February 1948 (Sauguet)

Two significant radio broadcasts make their appearance in this intriguing release. Bloch’s Schelomo is heard in a 1952 radio performance, given by the greatest French cellist of the first half of the twentieth century, Maurice Maréchal. And this is a significant addition to the cellist’s relatively meagre tally of concerto or concertante recordings.

Though the recording is not perfect and constricts the orchestral sound stage, it allows the soloist a reasonably good aural perspective. Maréchal was, by 1952, past his best and increasingly subject to some debilitating physical problems, but he was still recording in the studio and maintaining a regular recital place in Parisian musical life. Maréchal and Ernest Bour take a rather different slant to an old classic like the iconic and fervently evocative Feuermann-Philadelphia-Ormandy reading of 1940. But, in their more aloof way, they do tap into the music’s melancholic strain and the cellist’s phrasing, supported by that resonant woody tone, is at its apex from around 13’ on – unforgettably lovely.

Any live Maréchal is worth its weight in gold as far as I’m concerned, but there is a considerable bonus in the shape of Henri Sauguet’s Symphony No.1“Expiatoire”, which was composed in 1945 and is heard in this 1948 broadcast, under Bour once again. If you know this symphony from the Marco Polo CD, directed in Moscow by Antonio de Almeida, I’d ditch it in favour of this imperfectly recorded, but wholly idiomatic reading. For one thing, de Almeida takes an incredible nine minutes longer than Bour. For another , there’s no fire in the Moscow reading – it sounds like a bored run-through.

The symphony has a rather Nordic profile in places, with driving Sibelian undercurrents, to which Bour responds with absolute conviction. In the second movement, the contrast between the first desks of strings and orchestra – a kind of ripieno effect – is touchingly done, its chaste, almost chamber baroque feeling emerging beautifully, albeit in the context of subsequent brassy outbursts. This is a War symphony and the whipped-up March themes that appear, some mimicking Prokofiev, also generate a strong threnodic character. The brooding, trudging nature of the slow finale is deeply hewn and ambiguous. This is a symphony a conductor must believe in: Bour does, de Almeida doesn’t.

If you do collect French broadcast performances, you’ll know that the sound quality can occasionally be problematic. That’s true here, to a degree – German broadcasts of the time were far superior to those made in France or Britain or Italy – but if you like the repertoire, I strongly suggest persevering. You’ll find the great Maréchal with a piece new to his discography and a challenging, committed performance of an underestimated symphony, and much of the success of the disc must go to Bour, who has himself often been unjustly overlooked.

Jonathan Woolf