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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique (1830) [55:39]
Overture Le Carnaval Romain (1844) [9:13]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [11:05]
La Mer (1903-05) [25:39]
Images (1905-12) [40:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Ma Mère L’Oye (Suite, 1911-12) [16:11]
Pictures from an Exhibition (1872) (orch. Ravel) (1922) [32:15]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Bolero (1928) [17:02]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [6:09]
Concerto pour le main gauche (1929-30)* [21:00]
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907-08) [15:43]
La Valse (1920) [12:11]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor (1932) [19:45]
Suite Française (1935) [11:35]
Concert Champêtre (1928) [26:00]
Claire Chevallier (piano), Katerina Chroboková (harpsichord)
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel (piano)
rec. 2005-2013, Concertgebouw Brugge; Desingel, Antwerp
ALPHA 225 [5 CDs: 320:46]

This boxed set gathers together five previously released discs of French orchestral music recorded between 2005 and 2013 by Anima Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel. Some of the original releases have already been reviewed on MusicWeb International: the Berlioz disc by John-Pierre Joyce; the disc that included Pictures from an Exhibition by Nick Barnard and, as a download, by Brian Wilson; and the Poulenc collection by Oleg Ledeniov. I refer readers to my colleagues’ reviews for more detailed comments on those releases.

I think it would be fair to say that opinion has been divided. Oleg Ledeniov warmly welcomed the Poulenc recordings. John-Pierre Joyce liked the Berlioz recording, as did Brian Wilson when he auditioned it as a download. However, Nick Barnard’s appraisal of the disc he heard was far less complimentary. Having listened to this reissue collection I have mixed views. The period approach frequently tickles the ears but interpretatively some doubts arise.

On disc one the Berlioz symphony is performed with an orchestra of approximately 60 players. Without a doubt that leads to welcome transparency of texture. The cornet is a discreet but pleasing presence in ‘Un Bal’. However, the overall interpretation of the symphony seems to me to lack flair. In ‘Un Bal’ the waltz has insufficient sense of sweep and the last two movements seem to lack wildness. What really earns this performance a big black mark, however, is the way the tolling bell is sounded in the finale. What we get is the bell sounds played in octaves on two pianos! In the booklet it says that the bell part is “played on two Erard pianos as requested by Berlioz.” Now, I’m sure that the point has been thoroughly researched so who am I to challenge it, save to wonder why such other advocates of ‘period’ performance such as Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner have not gone down this path. Could it be that they judged the effect to be unsatisfactory? I have never heard the effect thus rendered nor do I have any desire to do so again. The instrumental timbres are interesting but Immerseel’s interpretation doesn’t begin to compare with such luminaries as Beecham, Davis, Monteux or Munch. Le Carnaval Romain doesn’t work for me. By a fraction – but a noticeable one – Immerseel gets his tempi wrong. So, the delectable cor anglais melody, and everything that flows from it, is just a touch too fleet but when the carnival dance begins the speed is just a fraction too steady and the sense of abandon is absent.

Disc two offers music by Debussy. I like the transparency that the orchestra brings to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune though the performance isn’t as sensuous and rich as we are accustomed to hearing. La Mer, similarly, benefits from clarity of detail and, as elsewhere in this set, the playing is very good indeed. However, as I listened I didn’t feel swept along with the music in the way that I do with, say, Abbado or Cantelli. In particular, the speed adopted for ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ seems a bit deliberate and therefore cautious. Immerseel plays the constituent elements of Images in an order that differs from the norm. Usually we hear Gigues, followed by Iberia and Rondes de printemps. However, Immerseel opens with Rondes de Printemps, follows on with Gigues and concludes with Iberia. In so doing he’s following the example of André Caplet in 1922. He admits he’s uncertain whether this ordering was Caplet’s own idea or suggested by Debussy. Rondes de Printemps feels a fraction too steady to me. However, the constituent movements of Iberia come off very well and I enjoyed this colourful performance.

Disc three is one of two devoted to Ravel – or at least it is by virtue of the fact that the French master’s orchestration of Pictures from an Exhibition is included. The disc has an extremely parsimonious playing time and would be poor value as an independent purchase. I wonder, therefore why only the suite from Ma Mère L’Oye is played – there would have been ample space for the complete ballet. Much of the performance is good – this is a score which particularly benefits from the transparency and lightness of touch of Anima Eterna Brugge – but I do miss the added richness that is to be found in a performance such as the Decca recording by Charles Dutoit. I liked a lot of Immerseel’s performance but I fear it falls down badly at the last hurdle. Le jardin féérique is one of the most magical passages in all Ravel; not here, though. Immerseel paces it too briskly and there’s no sense of magic: instead the results are prosaic; a cardinal sin. To make matters worse, the subito piano (at 2:04 in this performance), which should be a heart-stopping moment goes for nothing.

The Pictures from an Exhibition is something of a curate’s egg. In his review of the original release Nick Barnard pointed out that the string choir fielded by Immerseel was much smaller than the forces that Koussevitzky, who commissioned the orchestration, probably had at his disposal. Nick’s argument is highly persuasive; one can take ‘authenticity’ too far. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I find this performance underweight at times, though I don’t think the number of players involved is the only factor. There are some things I admire. There’s good attack in the spiky music of ‘Gnomus’, for example. I also liked the lightness in ‘Tuileries’ and ‘Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques’. On the other hand at the end of ‘Il vecchio castello’ the saxophonist, who otherwise plays very well, executes a pronounced upward slide to the final note. I don’t know if this is authentic – I can’t recall hearing it done this way in the past – but it’s a jarring effect that I don’t like one bit. ‘Bydlo’ doesn’t lumber sufficiently although, by contrast, I was pleasantly surprised by how imposing the heavy brass are in ‘Catacombae’. ‘Le grande porte de Kiev’ is a major disappointment. Immerseel takes the music far too briskly and so the performance is seriously lacking in weight. Any sense of an imposing architectural feature is completely absent. For the final peroration (from 3:02) Immerseel broadens the tempo significantly but by then it’s too late. Add in rather tinny gong and bells and the Great Gate opens with rather a whimper.

Disc four is an all-Ravel affair. The piquant timbres of many of the instruments, especially the woodwind family, tickle the ear in Bolero. Unfortunately, pacing is again an issue here. Immerseel is just too slow and succeeds in prolonging Ravel’s interminable crescendo still more than is usual. By way of reference, Dutoit (Decca) gets things over with in 15:03 while Rattle’s CBSO recording (EMI) is rather closer to Immerseel, playing for 16:15. Immerseel’s account of Pavane pour une infante défunte is nicely gracious. In the Left-hand Concerto I liked the sound of the 1905 Erard piano rather more than I thought I might and Claire Chevallier is a good soloist. I was surprised by the overall timing of the performance; 21:00 seemed quite spacious. When I did a bit of checking against other performances in my collection I found that the 1979 account from Jean-Philippe Collard and Lorin Maazel (EMI) comes in at 19:00 while Michel Beroff and Claudio Abbado (1987 Decca) are even swifter, taking 17:17. The differences are chiefly explained, I think, by Immerseel’s more expansive approach to the slow music in the score’s opening pages. Just by way of illustration, in his performance the first piano entry occurs at 2:51 but in the EMI performance we first hear Collard at 2:17. Still, on its own terms this Chevallier/Immerseel reading is one that I enjoyed. I also liked Rapsodie Espagnole and there’s much to relish in La Valse even if the performance isn’t quite as powerful as some I’ve heard.

Disc five brings us Poulenc. Also, unless my ears deceive me, it brings the most immediate recorded sound. It’s interesting – and surely not a coincidence - that this whole programme features works in which Poulenc took music of the past for his inspiration. For the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra Claire Chevallier is again in the solo spotlight, playing the 1905 Erard. Immerseel himself is the other soloist, playing another Erard, which dates from 1896. There were a few occasions when I thought the piano tone was somewhat shallow in the treble register but overall the timbre of the pianos seems well suited to the music. The first movement benefits from some very spirited playing in the faster music – both by the soloists and the orchestra – while the lyrical passages are elegantly done. The Mozartian slow movement is nicely relaxed while the finale is full of gaiety.

The other concerto on the programme is the Concert Champêtre in which soloist Katerina Chroboková plays an 1983 copy of a French harpsichord built in 1749. She and the orchestra give a sparkling rendition of the fast music of the first movement. Here the rhythms are incisively done and Poulenc’s piquant scoring comes over very well. There’s elegance and grace in the slow movement while the quicksilver, witty finale is full of fun in this enjoyable performance. To complete a very successful disc Immerseel, playing harpsichord, and a small group of members of the orchestra play the delectable Suite Française. In this suite Poulenc used as his material some dances by the sixteenth-century French composer, Claude Gervaise (1525-1583). It’s an affectionate and very skilful tribute to the earlier composer. The present performance is an excellent one. Among the numbers that caught my ear were the piquant ‘Bransle de Bourgogne’, a suitably stately ‘Pavane’, a crisp rendition of ‘Petite Marche Militaire’, the jolly ‘Bransle de Champagne’ and, to round things off, a chirpy account of ‘Carillon’. This is a winning performance of the suite.

This is a very interesting, if sometimes frustrating set. The playing of Anima Eterna Brugge is consistently excellent and their fresh, transparent sound often sheds refreshing light on familiar scores as do the timbres of their period instruments. That said, I think Jos van Immerseel has opted to play quite a bit of this music with a string section which is too small and as a result – and through no fault of the players – the results can sound somewhat undernourished. Incidentally, the booklet includes a comprehensive list of the players involved in each disc so you can easily assess the forces involved. As you’ll have gathered from my remarks about the individual discs I don’t think that Immerseel consistently matches the flair and interpretative insights of some illustrious rival conductors.

With the exception of the Poulenc disc I doubt that I would have rushed to recommend any of these discs as a full-price issue, still less as a library choice. However, since this set can be currently purchased for less than £5 a disc it becomes a more economical proposition and despite my reservations there are many rewards to be had from listening to these performances. All the performances are presented in very good, clear sound.

John Quinn



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