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You may recall that Naxos’s series of Auber discs has been marketed in a manner that hasn’t always been easy to follow. Back in 2016, the very first release, featuring several of the composer’s “greatest hits” (The bronze horse, The black domino, Fra Diavolo, The crown diamonds) performed by the Orchestre de Cannes under Wolfgang Dörner, was entitled Auber overtures 1 (review), suggesting that it was inaugurating a series.
When, therefore, four years later, a Naxos CD of Auber overtures (review) was marketed without an attached number, we were, I think, reasonably entitled to conclude that it must be an unrelated, standalone release. Such a supposition appeared to be reinforced by the fact that, unlike its predecessor, the disc focused on much less familiar works (Le maçon, Le séjour militaire, Le testament et les billets doux, and others) and that they were performed not by the Orchestre de Cannes/Dörner but by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra under the Scottish-Italian Auber specialist Dario Salvi.
Just a few months later, a third disc resumed the original sequential numbering by appearing as Auber overtures 2 (review). However, instead of picking up where the Orchestre de Cannes/Dörner Auber overtures 1 had left off, it proved to be another Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra/Salvi disc that once again focused on such generally more obscure repertoire as Le concert à la cour, Le timide and Le bergère châtelaine.
Now comes the fourth and newest release, Auber Overtures 3, and as its attached list of contents indicates it proves to be another collection of generally unfamiliar pieces once again conducted by Dario Salvi – though this time he’s leading the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. The fact that the three Salvi discs are sequentially numbered in the Naxos catalogue as 8.574005, 8.574006 and 8.574007 appears to offer conclusive proof that it is they that make up the genuine Auber series (so far), and that we ought to ignore that retrospectively puzzling numeral 1 in the title of the 2016 Orchestre de Cannes/Dörner release.
Although Auber wrote not far short of 50 works for the operatic stage, changing tastes and fashions mean that these days few of them are still performed. Consequently, as Mr Salvi has already demonstrated, it is relatively easy to fill a CD with pieces that are unfamiliar or even completely unknown to general listeners. Of his third volume’s 13 tracks, for instance, only five have ever been previously recorded. To be honest, however - and particularly after you’ve listened to this disc a few times - it isn’t always easy to decide whether a particular section of music is already familiar or not. The sheer consistency of Auber’s musical language means that, after a while, you are never be entirely certain whether you’ve actually heard something before or are merely imagining that you must surely have done. Conversely, that same musical predictability means that it’s almost as easy to think that you haven’t heard material before when, in reality, you may have – or at least have encountered something very like it.
Oddly enough, however, anyone who does recognise the odd tune or two on this new, well-filled disc is less likely to be an admirer of Auber’s operas than a fan of ballet. That is largely because, like many of his contemporary stage composers, Auber was a great recycler of his own scores and when, in 1857, he composed the music for his ballet Marco Spada (not to be confused with an opera of the same name that he had written five years previously) he happily plundered some of his earlier operas for suitable material. Filmed performances from Moscow (review) or from Rome - where Rudolf Nureyev, no less, danced the title role (Hardy Classic Video HCD 4040) - have familiarised many balletomanes with the Marco Spada score. As a consequence, as they listen to this new CD, they will recognise some of the ballet’s most prominent musical themes as deriving from La barcarolle’s overture (track 2, 2:42-4:30 and 5:27-end) and air de danse (track 4, 0:00-0:14), from the Les chaperons blancs overture (track 5, 1:55-3:05) and the whole of that opera’s Act III entr’acte and from the overture to Lestocq (track 8, 0:30-1:27). In similar fashion, they will no doubt notice that the early pages of the Grande ouverture pour l’inauguration de l’exposition à Londres (track 1, 0:21-1:33) are equally familiar, having been utilised by choreographer Victor Gsovsky in his widely performed party-piece Grand pas Classique (1949).
Incidentally, it is somewhat disappointing that the Grande ouverture, composed for the 1862 London International Exhibition, never quite overcomes the impression that Auber’s heart wasn’t really in it – which is perhaps hardly surprising as, after almost 60 years spent as a composer, he had written it on the verge of his 80th birthday. While its brisk central march section provides a moment or two of foot-tappingly jollity, the piece as a whole emerges as little more than a meretricious potboiler. I couldn’t help thinking wistfully of how much more effectively Auber’s trans-Atlantic contemporary Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the master of composing for massed crowds of both performers and listeners, might have exploited the opportunity of such a grand public performance. The American’s characteristic theatrical panache and over-the-top excess would surely have produced something rather more striking than Auber’s essentially formulaic and ephemeral piece.
Of the other more substantial tracks on this disc, the overtures are something of a mixed bag. It is an inevitable danger that prolific jobbing composers – of whom Auber is a notable example - will sometimes give the impression of composing on auto-pilot, and, with their notably episodic structures and nothing much in the way of “big tunes”, I suspect that that’s why La barcarolle and Les chaperons blancs haven’t been recorded before. I can, on the other hand, easily see why there have been previous recordings of the more coherent Lestocq overture and that to Le serment which, even though it’s the longest single track on the disc, never flags in its presentation and development of attractive melodies (imaginatively underpinned by intermittent strokes on the bass drum, depicting what I take to be some dramatically portentous off-stage cannon fire).
The various shorter orchestral excerpts, ranging in length from 3:44 down to just 0:48, inevitably struggle to make much of an impact when wrenched from their original contexts. Only the most substantial of them, an entr’acte to Act III of Rêve d’amour that benefits from focusing on a single, relentlessly deployed but thankfully attractive melody, sticks much in the memory at all.
I ought to stress at this point that any suggestion that this release might be something of a damp squib is entirely due to the repertoire. These are, after all, pieces which were composed neither to be listened to out of the context of their original operatic settings nor listened to in an unrelieved sequence. Moreover, any comprehensive series of discs such as this is bound to be at the very least somewhat uneven in quality. Putting those qualifications about the music and the way in which it’s presented to one side, however, I can confirm that I have no reservations whatsoever about its performers on this occasion. Dario Salvi is, as already noted, a specialist in this field and a fine advocate for the composer, even when the latter’s inspiration is running thin. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra is clearly a well-drilled and accomplished body that responds well to his idiomatic direction. Its performances are enhanced by a fine recording. The overall sound is, perhaps, a little warmer and somewhat less brightly hued than its two predecessors but, given that the same sound engineer has been employed on all three Salvi discs, we can no doubt ascribe any differences to the recent changes in orchestra and venue.
Once again, Robert Ignatius Letellier’s booklet notes prove very useful in guiding readers surefootedly through an era of musical history that remains, to a surprising extent, under-explored. We can only hope that further releases in this very useful series will throw more light on Auber’s forgotten output. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that they might, in so doing, uncover, if not actually The crown diamonds, at least one or two hitherto overlooked gems.
Contents Grande ouverture pour l’inauguration de l’exposition à Londres (1862) [8:42] La barcarolle, ou L’amour et la musique (1845)
Entr’acte to Act II [2:59]
Act III: Air de danse [2:50] Les chaperons blancs (1836)
Entr’acte to Act II [0:48]
Entr’acte to Act III [1:28] Lestocq, ou L’intrigue et l’amour (1834)
Entr’acte to Act II [1:05] La muette de Portici [1828)
Overture [9:42] Rêve d’amour (1869)
Entr’acte to Act III [3:44] Le serment, ou Les faux monnayeurs (1832)