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Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Zanetta (1840) – overture & excerpts [13:07]
Zerline (1851) – overture & excerpts [55:50]
Philippe MUSARD (1792-1859)
Quadrille no. 2 sur l’opéra Zanetta de D.F.E. Auber (1860?) [8:40]
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Dario Salvi
rec. 2020, House of Culture, Ostrava, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.574335 [77:39]

Readers with good memories will no doubt recall that, a few years ago, Naxos’s series of discs featuring Auber’s operatic overtures got off to rather an odd start. Auber overtures 1 featured the Orchestre de Cannes under Wolfgang Dörner and gave us exactly what it promised in the form of eight operatic overtures. However, its successor Auber overtures did not follow the same pattern at all. Not only was the sequential numbering dropped, but a new conductor, Dario Salvi, took over the reins and the disc’s remit was broadened to include not just overtures but also various orchestral excerpts from Auber’s operas.

In retrospect, that second but un-numbered release appears to have been the real start to this ongoing series, for subsequent releases - Auber overtures 2, 3 and 4, as well as this new one - have all been conducted by Maestro Salvi and have consistently ventured beyond the strict limits of “overtures”, even to the extent of including, in Auber overtures 2, an early violin concerto in D major. It seems quite appropriate, therefore, that this newest release in the series has dropped both the word “overtures” and the expected number “5” from its cover (though both still appear on the spine), proclaiming instead that it offers a mixed bag of Auber’s overtures, entr’actes and airs de ballet.

Dario Salvi’s Naxos biography informs us that he specialises in “the rediscovery and performance of long-forgotten masterpieces” and the obscurity of some of his discoveries is certainly confirmed in this new release, where no less than 13 of the 14 tracks are world premiere recordings (only the overture to Zanetta has, it seems, been recorded before). Even Auber’s most ardent admirer would, however, be challenged in making a case that the orchestral excerpts on this new disc merit the term “masterpieces”. Let’s recall, after all, just how prolific the composer’s output was. Between 1805 and 1869 he wrote no less than 48 operas and even Robert Ignatius Letellier, author of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: the man and his music (Newcastle, 2010), The overtures of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (Newcastle, 2011) and the Naxos booklet essay, does not claim any particularly special status for either Zanetta or Zerline. Mr Letellier’s booklet notes suggest, in fact, that it is Auber’s writing for singers – which is, of course, absent here – that is the most interesting feature of both works, though he correctly suggests that we will still find some engaging and enjoyable orchestral music in both operas.

Zanetta and Zerline share not only similar titles and Italian settings but also a generally light musical mood. Neither was, after all, intended to offer an emotionally taxing evening’s entertainment. Indeed, Zerline’s composition specifically reflected French government instructions that the Paris Opéra ought to mount shorter and more frivolous works that included plenty of dancing, to the extent that Mr Letellier considers it better characterised as a vaudeville production than an opera. Perhaps that explains why, even when the music makes (as it frequently does) a favourable immediate impact, it tends to prove not especially memorable once the disc has been taken out of the player. That, as you might expect, is particularly the case among the shorter entr’actes, the very longest of which clocks in at just 2:21. They may well have been successful in evoking or emphasising a general mood or atmosphere of some sort during a full theatrical production but when roughly plucked from that context their emotional impact is inevitably diminished. Conversely, the sheer extra length accorded to the airs de ballet from Zerline – and the fact that modern listeners familiar with mid-19th century ballet styles will be able to form imaginary pictures of dancers on stage – gives them far more chance of making an impression.

Zanetta’s score provided some material for Auber’s later ballet Marco Spada (1857) and so some of its overture’s melodies may be familiar to balletomanes. The hitherto-unrecorded Zerline overture, on the other hand, will be entirely unknown, I suspect, to all but Mr. Salvi, Mr. Letellier and a few other specialists. Jaunty and more vigorous passages make the greatest impact in both, but neither is sufficiently distinctive overall to impress as much more than as well-crafted but essentially meretricious compositions – which, after all, is quite probably the realistic way in which a jobbing composer like Auber saw them.

The music that I enjoyed most of all was, in fact, the Airs de ballet that, as a result of that aforementioned governmental edict, occupies most of Act 3 of Zerline. The attractive sequence of seven dances – several taken from Auber’s 1839 opera Le lac des fees - similarly takes up well over half of this CD’s running time. The highlights include a lengthy Styrian folk dance, a very attractive pas de deux entitled Les muses et les graces and a boisterous finale Le carnival de Palerme. Incidentally, the longest of the dances – Le bal d’enfants – makes an interesting contrast to the rather better known Mazurka des enfants that Ludwig Minkus composed thirty years later for a revival of Édouard Deldevez’s ballet Paquita. While Minkus’s music, with its regular, easily followed rhythms, is sufficiently straightforward for real children to perform, (see YouTube clip) Auber’s is far more complex and would surely have been beyond most youngsters’ capabilities. I suspect that - no doubt to the delight of the notorious young rakes of the mid-19th century Jockey-Club de Paris - it would have been danced instead by the prettiest ingénues and sauciest soubrettes passing themselves off as children. The Freudian implications of such a scenario are probably best avoided here.

It is worth noting that, for the first time in this ongoing series of discs, music by a composer other than Auber has also been included so as to indicate, we are informed, “the extent of Auber’s contemporary popularity and [as]… a revealing cultural souvenir of the period”. Philippe Musard’s quadrille based on themes taken from Zanetta is of little musical substance but is certainly pleasant enough to hear once or twice and makes an interesting addition to the disc.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that an ongoing and comprehensive survey such as this will include music that is less than consistently inspired – or, to be frank, even inspired at all. Nevertheless, this Naxos series is proving a very worthwhile exercise as it begins to fill the many gaps in Auber’s discography. The ready availability of music from such scores as Zanetta and Zerline now begins to allow us to gain a fuller appreciation of the composer and his music. The performances here are, moreover, entirely idiomatic. The Ostrava-based Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, newly co-opted to the project, does sterling service throughout as they tackle no doubt hitherto unfamiliar scores. Meanwhile, Dario Salvi’s skilled direction and the expertise of Naxos’s engineering team – both consistent features of the series - ensure that plenty of felicitous detail is uncovered and recorded. I have no hesitation at all in warmly welcoming this new release to the catalogue.

Rob Maynard

Zanetta (1840)
Overture [9:09]
Act 2: entr’acte [2:21]
Act 3: entr’acte [1:34]
Philippe MUSARD (1792-1859)
Quadrille no. 2 sur l’opéra Zanetta de D.F.E. Auber (1860?) [8:40]
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Zerline (1851)
Overture [9:14]
Act 2: entr’acte [1:17]
Act 3: introduction [0:50]
Act 3: airs de ballet (1) la Styrienne [6:20], (2) pas chinois [4:45], (3) les muses et les graces [8:38], (4) quadrilles des fous [4:51], (5) la sentimentale et l’enjouée [6:39], (6) le bal d’enfants [10:06], (7) le carnival de Palerme [2:49]

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