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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Carnaval des Animaux, R.125 (1886) [36:49]
(Narration in French by Alex Vizorek)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto pour deux pianos en ré mineur, Fp61 (1932) [19:52]
Danse Macabre, Op 40, with introductory poem by Henri Cazalis (1840-1909) [0:55 + 7:26]
Alex Vizorek (narrator)
Duo Jatekok: Adélaïde Panaget, Naïri Badal (piano)
Orchestre National de Lille/Lucie Leguay
rec. September 2020, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille.
Reviewed as 24/96 download from press preview
French spoken texts included: no translation.
Video on YouTube here.
ALPHA 749 [65:20]

This new recording of Saint-Saëns ever popular Carnival of the Animals starts with a huge disadvantage for prospective listeners among what Churchill called the English-speaking peoples: the music for each of the animals is preceded by an introduction in French. The French texts are included in the booklet, but there is no translation. Except as a means of introducing children to this fun music, I’m against interrupting the progress with any narration, just as I prefer the Britten Young Person’s Guide without narration, but it would have been sensible for Alpha to have released this programme in two versions, one with an English text, yet they appear to believe that it will sell well – there’s even a vinyl LP (ALPHA 773).

They do try to make it palatable both for the chers enfants and chers parents, but I wonder how many of the chers enfants – and even the chers parents – will understand the reference to Louis XIV in introducing the Lion with « L’État, c’est moi ! ».

If you choose the download version, it’s possible to skip the narration, but why bother when there are recommendable versions without narration and with English narration? Fans of Johnny Morris will find him with the Slovak RSO and Ondrej Lenárd on Naxos (8.554463, with Dukas and Ravel) and I enjoyed the recent version from the Kanneh-Masons, with narration by Michael Morpurgo and Olivia Coleman (Decca 4851156 – review). Morpurgo knows how to entertain children, and he’s much less annoying for repeated hearing than Morris.

Even better is the very fine small-scale narration-free recording from Renaud Capuçon and friends on Erato 5456032, with more music by Saint-Saëns – September 2009. (Ignore the defunct passionato link.) Or there’s the orchestral version from Thierry Fischer with the Utah Symphony, coupled with Saint-Saëns Symphony No 1 and Symphony in A (Hyperion CDA68223 – review review).

I missed the Hyperion in 2019, so I downloaded it in 24/96 sound, with pdf booklet, from, and not only thoroughly enjoyed the Carnival, but marvelled at the quality of the two little-heard symphonies. That in A, which sounds rather like rediscovered Schubert, received its first recording there; my only complaint is a common one – it’s a bit of a lead balloon after Carnival, and would have been much better placed first. Fischer’s Carnival is a bit low-key at the outset, but soon warms up, and the 24-bit recording is much better than the 3 stars (out of 5) awarded by one reviewer. Perhaps it’s the 24-bit quality that makes the difference.

Then there’s the Nimbus Alliance recording from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Martyn Brabbins in a new orchestration by Richard Blackford, coupled with Blackford’s own Great Animal Orchestra Symphony (NI6274). John Whitmore thought the Blackford enjoyable but gimmicky – review – which I suppose it is, but I like it, and he was very taken with the Saint-Saëns.

Having taken you all around the house with my preferred alternatives, I have to report that the actual music is well performed. If reissued without narration, I might well have placed it alongside those alternatives. You don’t have to be French to appreciate this music, but it seems to help the Capuçon team and Thierry Fischer, and it seems to work for the Lille orchestra and their conductor Lucie Leguay, here making what I believe to be an auspicious recording debut.

My other reservation concerns the coupling: to conclude with the Danse macabre is logical enough, though, again, I could have done without the poem for repeated hearing, but the only reason to include the Poulenc two-piano concerto seems to be that they had two pianists ready to hand in the Saint-Saëns and needed something else for them to do. The same logic applies to same coupling on the Warner recording with Marek Janowski and the French Radio Philharmonic – the Pekinel sisters appear in both works – but at least that comes as a mid-price Apex download (2564621252: Recording of the Month – review). It used to be a super-budget CD; search and you may find it for around £4.

As with the musical content of the Carnival, there’s much to admire in this crisp and snappy performance of the Poulenc and, of course, more demanding material for the pianists and conductor to get their teeth into. The Duo Jatekok have already cut those teeth on Poulenc with a recording of his Duo Sonata and Elégie (‘Les Boys’, Alpha 338, with Trotignon and Dave Brubeck). Leslie Wright thought them too percussive – review – but I didn’t find that true of the new recording. In the larghetto second movement, with its hints of Mozart, they are particularly sensitive, and the orchestra match them well as Poulenc takes us to what Paul Serotsky in his notes on the MusicWeb site calls ‘a garden of enchantment all his own’. The Princesse de Poulignac, who commissioned both the concerto and Les Bîches seems not to have liked this movement at first; perhaps, had she heard this recording, she might have.

The Alpha recording is very good, especially as heard in 24/96 format, but … and it’s a considerable ‘but’, with so many very fine versions of the Poulenc concerto available, mostly coupled with more music by the same composer, the new recording seems something of an oddity. Among the alternative all-Poulenc couplings, there’s a very worthwhile Warner Apex: François-René Duchable (piano) & Jean-Philippe Collard (piano), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/James Conlon, with the Piano Concerto and Aubade, and that is still at super-budget price on CD and an even less expensive download (2564625522).

The Danse macabre rounds off the programme with a bang, or, rather a rattle, but I don’t think that many prospective Anglophone buyers will be tempted simply for the sake of that, preceded by the poem which inspired it, in best Comédie française diction, or the Poulenc. Like the narration, the notes in the booklet of my review copy, even in the version from the UK distributor, are entirely in French. All in all, an old-style school report might read ‘could do better’. There are some very decent performances here, but the all-French notes and the French narration limit the appeal.

Brian Wilson

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