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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
NAXOS 8.573694 [65:40]

For me this disc embodies the elusive genius of Offenbach. On one level, as here, get a good orchestra, decently recorded with someone on the stick willing to give this effervescent music its head and the result will be an hour of absolute pleasure. But it takes a special type of genius, with a subtle and searching hand to find the essential humanity of the music too. This new disc from Naxos ticks all the competency boxes with room to spare but I miss the nuance and pointed detail that lifts this out of simply being ‘good fun’ into the realm of the truly affecting.

Conductor Darrell Ang is a confident and certain interpreter. My sense is that in this repertoire he is a rather plain one too. Fast sections are played with great brilliancy and panache, tempi start bright and often push through to climaxes with an enjoyable surge of adrenalin. Perhaps I am being picky but too often I find his choices to be just fast - somehow there is too little bubble and brio to match the velocity. This is music that should chuckle and be bright-eyed. Likewise, in the many glorious lyrical melodies that Offenbach seemed to be able to produce in his sleep I find Ang to be perfectly logical and sensible but never inspired or indeed very sensitive. Phrasing tends to follow a very dependable rise and fall as it follows a melody’s shape. With music such as this - which is often very familiar - I fall into the “tell me something I don't know” category of listener. In other words, I have heard so many versions of these melodies over the years - often in versions I greatly enjoy - that a disc coming to the party now needs to have something new to offer. For good or ill this disc falls into the category of perfectly good - probably more than that if you are seeking your first such compilation - but if the repertoire is duplicated elsewhere in your collection I see little reason to add this to it.

The Orchestre National de Lille is a good but not super-virtuoso ensemble. The recording was made in the orchestra’s home of the Nouveau Siècle in Lille. This is a late 1960’s 2000-seater hall. For this type of repertoire, my feeling is that producer/engineer Phil Rowlands fights the resonant acoustic of the empty hall. It sounds a bit of a barn with an acoustic ‘overhang’ that blurs the textures of this style of music. My preference in this repertoire is a more neutral environment - by no means dry but conversely not one that either blurs or inflates the music which I feel this hall does. Again, this is by no means bad - simply not ideal to my ear.

Selections of Offenbach overtures such as this will always involve some repertoire overlap with competitors. Almost exactly two years ago I reviewed a similar selection from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Neeme Järvi on Chandos. Six of the selections here appeared on the Chandos disc too. I must admit I felt that disc lacked magic and charm in much the same way this one does although the Swiss ensemble are just a tad more sophisticated than their French colleagues and the Chandos SA-CD sound is better. The upper strings in Lille are just the tiniest fraction ‘slack’ alongside other ensembles and it is that last couple of percentage points of tightness that pays such dividends in this music. Editions for this music are always something of a nightmare too. Only two of the Naxos selections are marked as being edited/arranged by other hands which implies that the rest are Offenbach’s own - a case in point; Järvi’s La Vie Parisienne is given in Antal Dorati’s quite brilliant arrangement, Ang gives something quite different which I suspect is more ‘authentic’ which might well be a significant consideration for some collectors.

The three items included here which are ‘missing’ from Järvi are relatively rare and interesting. Both L' Île de Tulipatan and Ouverture à grand orchestre were included in a two-disc survey of Offenbach’s orchestral music on Vox from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops. Curiously the latter, in Kunzel’s version, chops out the extended slow introduction which is well-played here in Lille. The Vox liner writer makes the very valid comparison that this early work harks back to Offenbach’s Germanic roots and is distinctly more Mendelssohnian than anything he wrote once he got into his French operetta stride. Again, in direct comparison I find that Kunzel has a fractionally more affectionate lilt to this music than Ang and he allows his wind soloists a more vocal freedom in the slow sections. The third unusual item is Monsieur et Madame Denis Overture which was quite new to me although the flute melody at 3:14 is familiar and in the best tradition of a good tune used elsewhere in other works. In programming terms perhaps slightly odd to start with the most famous item - Orphée aux enfers - riotous can-can and all - and end with the least familiar Ouverture à grand orchestre especially given the historical-interest-only nature of that work - for sure it is no lost masterpiece.

So, overall a serviceable selection of these hugely enjoyable overtures given energetic if not particularly nuanced performances.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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