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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886) [37:09]
Danse Macabre, Op 40 (1874) [8:21]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for 2 pianos in D minor (1932) [19:52]
Alex Vizorek (narrator)
Duo Jatekok
Orchestre National de Lille/Lucie Leguay
rec. September 2020, L’Auditorium du Nouveau SiŤcle, Lille, France
ALPHA CLASSICS 749 [65:22]

It was never Saint-SaŽns’ intention to have his “Grand Zoological Fantasy” performed with narration. In fact, to be totally fair, it was never his intention to have the work performed in public at all. The fact remains it has become one of his most popular works and has, over the years, amassed a number of narrations mostly aimed at children who, it would appear, are thought unable to appreciate the music as it stands and need either a story or some pointers to make it even more accessible to them. Some narrations are more successful than others, but all tend to break up the flow of the music and intrude into what is a pretty well self-contained musical entity where the titles of each of the 14 sections provide sufficient clues as to what the music is all about. Here’s a narration which is, so Alpha tell us, designed to underline the work’s “crazy and poetic drollery”, melodramatically delivered by Belgian comedian and TV presenter, Alex Vizorek. He wrote the words himself, and it is so wordy, and so obviously designed as a vehicle for his own personality, that one wonders whether the music was really necessary. With liberties taken with the music to mould into the narration and, with that narration entirely in French – as is the booklet – making references to elements of popular French culture which may well pass non-French children by, one wonders whether there is any real appetite for this beyond the fans who hang on to Vizorek’s every word.

Vizorek’s spoken introduction to Danse Macabre is another piece of dramatic posturing, verging on the egotistic, which detracts from, rather than adds to, Saint-SaŽns’ music. Perhaps surprisingly, the music is presented here in a version for two pianos, nimbly and spikily played by pianists AdťlaÔde Panaget and NaÔri Badal (working under the collective title of Duo Jatekok). It is probably worth noting that this release is intended to mark the centenary of Saint-SaŽns’ death; I would hope for more fitting tributes during the year.

Mercifully the Poulenc concerto is played without any intrusive narration and all the melodrama you could ever wish for provided by incisive orchestral playing from Orchestre National de Lille and invigorating direction from Lucie Leguay. She does rather over-egg the pudding, to the extent that sometimes we wonder whether we are hearing pure Poulenc or Leguay’s version of ideas by Poulenc, but Duo Jatekok are willing collaborators in a performance which never fails to impress in the energy of the playing and the buzzing electrical charge running through the whole thing. It would never be my first choice, but there is much to relish in this highly idiosyncratic realisation of a hugely entertaining Concerto.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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