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Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
España (1883) [6:03]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Trois danses, Op. 6 (1932) [21:15]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31 (1871) [7:26]
Achille-Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-4) [9:12]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales (1922) [14:15]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation from Thaïs (1894) [5:34]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (19907-8) [14:34]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London

Even those of us whose idea of music is a Wagner opera or Bruckner symphony occasionally relax, and there is no better way of doing so than to put on some frothy French music. Here we have a splendid anthology, including some very well known pieces and some rarities, all played with the combination of zest and precision which have become the hallmark of John Wilson’s work.

We begin with Chabrier’s España, one of several French works to evoke Spain, some others of which also feature here. This immediately put me in a good mood with its crisp and delicate opening, the sense that this actually very familiar work was being newly discovered and the warmth and charm of the wind solos. This is as good a performance as I have ever heard of it.

Duruflé’s Trois danses is a real rarity. He composed little, in this respect following in the footsteps of his teacher Paul Dukas, and this is one of the only two works he wrote for orchestra. His Requiem is, of course, well-known and well-loved, but this orchestral work deserves to be equally well-known. It is, by some way, the longest work here, and it somewhat belies its name, in that the first two of the dances are actually dreamy impressionist numbers, though the second is more energetic than the first. The third is fast and very exciting, with undertones of menace and also featuring a long winding alto saxophone solo, both of these making one think of Ravel, who would not have been ashamed to sign this score.

Saint-Saëns’s Le Rouet d’Omphale, one of four symphonic poems he wrote, is also seldom heard nowadays. Omphale bought Hercules as a slave and set him to spinning while she wore his lion skin and held his club. This was the punishment decreed by Apollo for his murder of Iphitus, one of the Argonauts. We hear the spinning wheel and the groans of Hercules. It is a charming piece, nicely done with a good deal of graceful work on the violins.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the best-known work here. I particularly admired the sensitive playing of the flute and horn, but indeed all the wind players do well. John Wilson shapes the long central melody very sensitively and brings is to a rousing climax.

Ibert’s Escales was new to me. I had always thought of him as a competent neo-classicist who wrote neat but scarcely inspiring works. Whatever might be the truth of that, Escales is quite different. It is an early work and the idiom is impressionist and quite lush. Escales means ports of call. These were inspired by Ibert’s naval service during the first World War. There are three of them: Rome-Palerme begins with an evocation of Rome into which a tarantella erupts, suggesting Palermo in Sicily. Tunis-Nefta uses a Phrygian mode in a seven-beat rhythm and features a sinuous oboe solo. The finale Valencia is a Spanish evocation, rather like Ravel, to whom we come in a moment, but without the dark undertones of Ravel.

Before Ravel we have Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs. The opera deals with the tension between sensuality and asceticism and this Méditation is an entr’acte between two scenes. It really a concertante work with a solo violin which has a gorgeous melody to play. I assume the solo violin here is played by Andrew Haveron, the leader, who spins a really lovely line.

Finally, there is Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, the third of the Spanish evocations in this collection. I must admit to having always thought this rather second-rate Ravel, but this performance changed my mind. The Prélude à la nuit deploys a four-note ostinato to great effect. The Malagueña moves through some rapidly changing moods. The Habanera, an orchestration of an early work, is one of those pieces I feel I have always known, and the final Feria is an exuberant piece which pauses for a cor anglais solo and a return to the opening Prélude before the end.

The orchestra here is the Sinfonia of London, a specially recruited session band which has taken on a famous name from the past. They play with both delicacy and verve for John Wilson, whose command of pacing and the management of climax is very much in evidence. There is nothing crude or coarse about their work here. This is a SACD, but I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo, in which there was a lovely bloom on the sound, but no danger of blurring. There are other recordings of all the works here, some of which sit on my shelves, but I am not going to list comparisons: this collection stands on its own. To add to the attractions, instead of the dreary mugshots we so often have on the front of booklets nowadays, there is a charming painting titled Boats in a Port, very suitable for the Ibert which gives its name to the whole disc. This is a fizzing collection and it will certainly be one of my Records of the Year.

Stephen Barber

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