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Jean Fournet: The Concertgebouw Recordings
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A night on the bare mountain (1867) [11:13]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
España – rhapsody for orchestra (1883) [6:14]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
L’apprenti sorcier (1897) [11:44]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [10:09]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
In the steppes of central Asia (1880) [8:24]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt – Suite No. 1, op. 46 (1875) [14:54]; No. 2, op. 55 (1891) [16:00]
Concertgebouworkest/Jean Fournet
rec. Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 16-18 June 1959
ELOQUENCE 482 4959 [79:28]

In his Conductors on record (London, 1982), John L. Holmes devoted just over a page to consideration of the work of French conductor Jean Fournet. Six years later, when Mr. Holmes jettisoned more than half his book’s 734 pages to produce the more concise Conductors: a record collector’s guide (London, 1988), Fournet’s entire entry was one of the casualties.

Some victims of that 1988 editorial cull were entirely predictable. Simply looking at other conductors with surnames beginning with the letters FO who were accorded entries in the earlier volume, who now, apart from their families, recalls Zdeněk Folprecht, Jean Kurt Forest or Nils-Erik Fougstedt? Jean Fournet, on the other hand, was a relatively well known and widely appreciated figure in European musical life. Indeed, given that Holmes himself considered him “one of the most distinguished interpreters of French music on disc” (1982 op. cit., p. 199), Fournet’s complete excision from the shorter volume must have come as something of a surprise – not least to the conductor himself who still had another two decades of life left in him before he died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 95.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Fournet had worked extensively with Dutch orchestras. At the same time, he recorded extensively on the Netherlands’s preeminent label, Philips, though he seems to have found it a less than satisfactory experience. Interviewed by Bruce Duffie in 1981, he explained that “what you lose [in the recording studio] is the certain atmosphere of emotion. The technicians are very clever and good at their jobs but what they don’t understand is that there is more to it than just a series of vibrations. You can paste something together and get a performance that is technically perfect – not one false note - but the soul of the piece will have vanished in the process… I like the idea of recording a live performance where the performers go from the beginning to the end. There may be one or two slight imperfections – a false note or a bad entrance – but the inspiration of that performance is there and the nervous energy and all those things which make the soul of the music… I would prefer to do that than [to] record in the studio with all the dials…”

Apart from his unhappiness with modern technology, Fournet had had other reasons to anticipate difficulties in setting down the tracks on this CD. As Niek Nelissen’s useful booklet note explains, the recording sessions had been hastily re-planned following the unexpected death, just a couple of months earlier, of the originally-scheduled conductor Eduard van Beinum. They took place, moreover, just a few hours after the orchestra had given some particularly exhausting live performances of nothing less than Tristan und Isolde. It is reasonable to surmise that, quite apart from commercial considerations, Fournet and his producers may have opted for a programme of popular and relatively straightforward pieces that would not prove too taxing for the players.

As might be anticipated from Mr. Holmes’s evaluation cited earlier, it is the French repertoire that comes across best. Fournet’s own instrument was the flute, and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was always one of his calling-cards (he chose it to open his last-ever concert with the Concertgebouw in 1995). The performance here is convincingly idiomatic. It expertly conjures up the piece’s fin de siècle impressionism and eroticism, and at the same time demonstrates the conductor’s fine ear for orchestral colour, balance and dynamics. Chabrier’s potboiler España offers relatively little scope for a distinctively characterised performance. Though well played, it emerges on this occasion, as it so often does, as little more than a jolly Iberian pastiche. The performance of Dukas’s L’apprenti sorcier is, however, rather more interesting for, while its curiously deliberate tempi will surprise anyone familiar with Stokowski’s Mickey Mouse freneticism, its consequent attention to the piece’s finer detail ends up generating much more in the way of musical atmosphere.

Yet another piece popularised by Stokowski/Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Mussorgsky’s ghoulish Night is often, these days, described as taking place on bald mountain. A night on the bare mountain was, though, the title generally used in the 1950s, a decade when the version invariably played was – as here – the one concocted by Rimsky-Korsakov. Once again, Fournet offers a solid performance characterised by consistent control. While his witches are perhaps a rather matronly bunch, any deficit in devilish excitement is more than compensated for by sheer musical integrity.

Solidity is once again a primary characteristic when it comes to Fournet’s account of In the steppes of central Asia. Unfortunately, however, Borodin’s wonderfully evocative score needs something more. It gets that in a marvellous performance – recorded less than a couple of years after Fournet’s – by Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra that my colleague Dan Morgan has rightly characterised as particularly natural and spontaneous. While Fournet’s Debussy shows that he can conjure up compelling musical pictures with the best of them, he lacks, I think, the natural feel for the Russian repertoire that underpins the riveting authenticity of Ansermet’s account.

Now, Grieg’s two Peer Gynt suites are a delight. As already noted, Fournet’s background was as a flautist, so the opening of the first suite’s Morning mood, with its prominent part for the flute, is moulded especially beautifully. The conductor’s subtle control of dynamics gives Aase’s death real emotional heft, while an initially somewhat restrained In the hall of the mountain king is ultimately foot-stompingly thrilling. An interesting feature of the second suite is that the soprano Annette de la Bije was brought in for Solveig’s song. It had originally been intended to record a purely orchestral version too, but the vocal take was apparently judged so successful that any alternative was subsequently thought unnecessary. This account of the two suites stands up very well even today.

All in all, then, this release serves as a useful reminder of Jean Fournet’s long career. Given that, back in 1948, his recording of Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts was rated by critic David Hall as, without reservation, the most significant recording made anywhere in the world during the war years (cited in Holmes 1982 op. cit., p. 199), it might be considered that Fournet was a conductor who never fulfilled his full potential. Nonetheless, as even the relatively undemanding scores on this well-engineered and generously filled CD demonstrate, he could often display considerable skill and musical imagination. As such, he deserves the recognition offered by this new release.

Rob Maynard

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