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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orphée aux enfers (1858, arr. for orchestra by Carl Binder) [8:49]
La Fille du tambour-major (1879) [6:27]
L'Île de Tulipatan (1868) [4:11]
Monsieur et Madame Denis (1862) [6:32]
La Belle Hélène (1864) [8:32]
Vert-Vert (1869, arr. for orchestra by Fritz Hoffmann) [8:49]
La Vie parisienne (1865) [5:17]
La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) [4:11]
Ouverture à grand orchestra (1843) [12:52]
Orchestre National de Lille/Darrell Ang
rec. 2016, Nouveau Siècle, Lille
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573694 [65:40]

Need a lift? Then try Offenbach’s catchy curtain-raisers. Elegant, effervescent and hugely entertaining, they seldom fail to please. This newcomer is especially welcome, as Darrell Ang’s New Zealand Symphony recording of Meyerbeer overtures and entr’actes was such a hit that I made it one of my Recordings of the Year in 2014. Since then, I’ve heard him direct the Royal Philharmonic and Alexandra Dariescu in a most rewarding performance of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Both albums have convinced me Ang is a baton waver of good sense and good taste, and that’s always a good start.

The last clutch of Offenbach lollipops to come my way was Neeme Järvi’s. The esteemed Estonian may not be as consistent as he once was, but in this instance he and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande are in fizzing form. Of course, they have the benefit of superb sonics, thanks to the ultra-modern recording facilities at Geneva’s Victoria Hall. That said, Naxos albums – once cheap and cheerful, with a sound to match – have come a long way in recent years. Indeed, the high-res download of Ang’s Meyerbeer collection is an aural treat.

I first listened to this Offenbach album – produced, engineered and edited by Phil Rowlands – as a 16-bit press/media download, and found it slightly diffuse at times. As expected, the 24/48 version is more cleanly focused, with glorious detail and a much firmer bass. Musically, there’s no doubting Ang’s skills in this repertoire. He’s expressive and exciting, without exaggerated phrasing or dynamics, and he generates a thrilling sense of theatre that will have you fumbling for the sal volatile. Not only that, he seems to have an immediate and infectious rapport with these French players. I suspect that same spark galvanised the NZSO to play so well in the Meyerbeer.

The Orpheus overture that we know so well, with its high-kicking Can-Can, was actually arranged by Carl Binder, for the operetta’s Vienna premiere in 1860. Ang delivers a deft and dramatic reading that almost stops the show before it’s begun. Goodness, this is marvellous music-making, and the natural recording – with a lovely ‘bloom’ in the tuttis – is a delight. There’s real snap to La Fille du tambour-major –  terrific side drum at the start – not to mention a delicious lilt to the waltz that follows. How nicely sprung it all is, how clear and confident. 

As for L’Île de Tulipatan – which is new to me – it has some lovely things, not least a gentle, Barcarolle-like passage that’s utterly beguiling. Ang has the measure of this piece, and, as with the Tchaikovsky concerto, he doesn’t oversell or overdrive it. The result is a pleasing and proportionate performance that, at the close, had me reaching for the Repeat button. Offenbach’s one-act opéra comique, Monsieur et Madame Denis, is also unfamiliar, and although it’s not particularly inspired it’s well-crafted and winningly played.

And that’s the nub of it. Even when the music isn’t of the highest quality, Ang insists on presenting it in the best possible light; indeed, that’s probably why I enjoyed these rarities so much. Among the better-known pieces is are the nice little Grecian earner, La Belle Hélène, which I got to know via Herbert von Karajan’s 1980s recording for DG. The early digital sound now seems rather bright and a little too rhythmically regimented, neither of which applies to Ang’s spontaneous, full-bodied version. Ditto La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which has all the high-stepping hauteur – and melting loveliness – that one would wish for. Splendid brass playing, too.

And purely on the basis of the overture to Vert-Vert – arranged for orchestra by Fritz Hoffmann – it’s hard to understand why the opera itself had such a mixed reception. Ang directs an exhilarating performance of this nifty little number, the Lille brass covering themselves in glory once again. Ultimately, though, it’s the conductor’s unwavering belief in this music – so clearly semaphored to his players – that generates such a powerful charge, both here and in La Vie parisienne. Indeed, the latter – surely born of a national penchant for parades and public celebrations – is imbued with a jauntiness and joie de vivre that’s impossible to resist.

The album ends with Offenbach’s Ouverture à grand orchestre, written when he was just 24. Even allowing for that, it’s an accomplished and coherent work, artfully scored, that never outstays its welcome. As ever, it’s generous, wholehearted musicianship that makes it seem more than a mere curiosity. In short, a very pleasant surprise. Throw in a well-balanced, three-dimensional recording that brings out all the felicities of Offenbach’s writing, and it’s no wonder the allotted hour passes so swiftly. The notes, by Dominic Wells, are admirably clear and concise.

Ang is a natural in this repertoire; inspired playing and top-notch sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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