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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Brumaire – Overture (1900) [10:09]
Visions – Symphonic Poem (1891) [14:05]
Espada – Ballet Suite (1908) [10:13]
Les Érinnyes – Incidental Music [30:58]
Phèdre – Overture (1873) [9:20]
Poppy Shotts (soprano) (Visions), Maya Iwabuchi (violin) (Visions), Aleksei Kiseliov (cello) (Les Érinnyes)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Jean-Luc Tingaud
rec. August 2019, New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
NAXOS 8.574178 [75:05]

Massenet achieved astonishing success as an opera composer; having started out his compositional life living in a garret, he ended up as a multi-millionaire, having composed 26 operas. The performance statistics are quite dizzying: for Paris alone, between 1867 and 1915 there were 2617 performances, and Manon contributed 831 outings to this grand total. He composed 5 ballets, 14 sets of incidental music, 26 orchestral works, many solo piano works, at least 4 chamber pieces, 4 oratorios and some 200 songs. Add to this list assorted religious works, cantatas, choruses, vocal duos, trios and quartets, and it is clear that his work rate was phenomenal.

Most of his operas have been recorded, and on listening to them, one becomes aware that he was a musical chameleon, changing his compositional style to match the current vogue – to hear Massenet-Wagner, then listen to Esclarmonde!

His orchestral works have not survived in performance anything like his more popular operas, and this well filled Naxos CD gives us chance to hear works which are rare indeed. The piece that first attracted my attention was the Symphonic Poem Visions, which the booklet informs us was modelled on Liszt’s Les Preludes. I found myself a little disappointed by this work, mainly because its themes are not particularly memorable, although the composer creates wonderful sounds purely by his orchestrational skills. There is a middle section for violin harp, harmonium and electrophone(!) which is ravishing, and towards the end of the work, he re-visits this passage adding an off-stage vocalise for soprano – beautifully done here by the pure-voiced Poppy Shotts.

The French Revolutionaries renamed the months of the year, and on the 18th of Brumaire (= 9th November 1799), a coup d’état by Napoleon overthrew the revolutionary government. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this event, Massenet composed the stand-alone overture Brumaire. It begins with a fanfare leading into a stormy development, followed by a procession with side-drum and trumpets announcing La Marseillaise. This is followed by brass and bell plus harp arpeggios in a more settled section, leading the final part of the piece – another march-like theme with hints of La Marseillaise.  It is quite an attractive, short work, lacking the last ounce of memorability.

A ten-minute suite from the one-act ballet Espada is yet another example of French composers’ interest in the musical depiction of Iberia. Massenet himself had created some extremely memorable dances for an interlude in his opera Le Cid, and I have to say that, while they are very nice and occasionally ear tickling, the four extracts from Espada are not in the same league of memorability, which is probably why they have only just appeared on CD.

The longest work recorded here is the incidental music to Les Érinnyes, a play based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The original work was for strings, drums and trombones, but for the 1876 version played here, Massenet expanded it for full orchestra. By far the most memorable, indeed entrancing, part occurs in the Scene religieuse, Invocation, where a superb cello theme, introduced by harps, is played during Elektra’s obsequies for her murdered father. The rest of the work does not possess the same level of inspiration, though Massenet’s music for the entrance of the Furies is appropriately raucous and dramatic with the use of crashing cymbals, tam-tam and trombones.

The final item is also the earliest, the overture Phèdre. Twenty-seven years later in 1900, Massenet composed incidental music for Racine’s play. The overture itself is a nicely varied piece, alternating a furious allegro representing Phèdre’s love for her stepson with a broad theme which is expanded in full symphonic sound. The work reaches a culmination by a repetition of the first subject in passionate writing for the strings.

Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud obtains committed performances from the RSNO who play very well indeed throughout the CD. As mentioned above, the vocalise in Visions sounds exquisite as sung by Poppy Shotts, an up and coming soprano, only recently graduated from the RCM, and before that already the recipient of several awards. I have no doubt that we will be hearing much more of this young artist. The recording is fine, though sometimes lacking clarity in the lowest reaches. The booklet is detailed and complements the recording well.

Jim Westhead

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