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Pierne suites 8573609
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Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Ramuntcho – Incidental Music (1908)
Suite No.1 (1910) [17:35]
Suite No.2 (1910) [13:50]
Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied – Ballet (1914-15)
Suite No.1 – excerpts (1926) [15:04]
Suite No.2 (1926) [16:09]
Orchestre National de Lille/Darrell Ang
rec. 6-8 October 2015, Le Nouveau Siécle Lille, France
NAXOS 8.573609 [62:38]

In his lifetime Gabriel Pierné was a celebrated and multi-talented musician. As a conductor – composing was relegated to a summer holiday pursuit – he premiered works such as Debussy’s Ibéria, Images and Jeux as well as Stravinsky’s Firebird and the first suite from Daphnis et Chloé. As an organist he succeeded Franck at St. Clotilde, holding the post until 1898 when he gave it up to focus on his conducting and composing careers. Yet posterity has not dealt that kindly with Pierné. For all the polish and finesse of his musical legacy he remains little known if at all to the wider music-listening public. Unless an advert or a television series adopts one of his melodies, it is hard to see that situation changing.

Yet listening to this very fine disc from Darrell Ang conducting the Orchestre National de Lille it is easy to hear much to give pleasure through the skill of its composition and the attractiveness of its musical content. The disc divides quite neatly in half between the two suites of incidental music that Pierné drew from his score to the play Ramuntcho in 1908 and extended excerpts from the two suites for his ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied of 1914-15. For some reason Naxos have chosen to include just three of the six movements from the latter’s Suite No.1 which is a shame since roughly twenty minutes of the disc’s maximum playing time is unused. I see from the catalogue that the same two works were coupled on an old EMI-France disc from Jean-Baptiste Mari conducting the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris. I have not heard this disc nor seen the tracks listed so I do not know how it compares in terms of performance or indeed content. Both scores have appeared in several different versions and couplings on different labels so it will be for the collector to decide if they feel the work merits duplications.

For the listener new to both works this disc is very attractive. The playing of the Orchestre National de Lille is vibrant and alert yet also flexible and sensitive when required. Likewise Darrell Ang has the style of this music down to a tee. The performers are supported by a fine Naxos recording from the experienced hand of producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton. The recording venue of Le Nouveau Siécle Lille is not overly resonant – but neither is it dry – the engineering captures the energetic and precise playing of the orchestra perfectly. I noticed in particular how well the detail of Pierné’s scoring was caught with the percussion transients – cymbals and triangles having a pleasing brilliance. The competition in the Ramuntcho suites is intense with fine versions on both Chandos and BIS. In terms of playing and interpretation there is little to choose between the Chandos and Naoxs discs but the typically plush Chandos sound actually works a little against this score and I found myself preferring the leaner soundscape of this new disc. As befits incidental music the seven movements included in the two suites are colourful and evocative. Suite No.1 opens with the play’s Ouverture – a substantial movement running to nearly eight minutes. This is a scintillating piece and one that fully deserves a life away from the theatre or suite – but I cannot remember ever having heard it in isolation in the concert hall – Ang is significantly more characterful here than Mena on Chandos with the BBC PO. The two suites are bookended by another extended section that closes Suite No.2 – Rapsodie basque and again Ang finds real brio and bite. Between these two extended sections are a varied group of ‘mood’ pieces that allow the orchestra to display their considerable skills both collectively and individually – there are especially fine contributions from the principal flute and oboe.

Given the work’s origin as incidental music and the – presumed – limitations of the size of the available pit orchestra these suites are more modest in their scoring and emotional range than the ballet that is the disc’s coupling. The ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied was scored for a substantially larger orchestra – triple woodwind, brass, two harps, celeste, piano and strings. Although Pierné deploys this orchestra with skill and sophistication it is also noticeable that he revels in the lusher textures this larger group allows and there is a languor and sensuality in some sections of the score quite absent from the earlier/preceding one. The narrative blurs the popular Arcadian idyll which although set in 18th Century France manages to include fauns and the Satyr included in the title. Hard not to hear the influence of Ravel’s Daphnis as well which must have been burrowing its way into Pierné’s creative consciousness given that Ravel was working on his score and it was premiered just two years before Pierné produced his ballet.

This indebtedness becomes especially clear when one hears the wordless chorus employed by Pierné in the complete score that is absent in the orchestral excerpts offered on this disc. And therein lies part of the dilemma for the collector. This new version in its own right is really very good indeed – a genuine pleasure to listen to. However, by offering just the two suites and a truncated first suite at that we are given just thirty one minutes of a score that complete lasts over seventy. Listening to the excellent complete version on Timpani from David Shallon makes one realise that for all the qualities of the performance on this new disc so much fine music is missing. One of the movements we do hear is about as near as Pierné got to a piece commanding wider popularity – Suite No.1 – I. L’ École des Aegipans – better known in English as The Entry of the Little Fauns. But that cautionary note aside – and really do hear the Shallon performance if you can – again I have nothing but praise for Ang’s grip and understanding of this score. Listen to the closing Suite No.2 – Final du 3éme Tableau (the Second Suite is in fact the third and final tableau of the ballet complete) which has an ecstatic sweep and ardour that is really rather wonderful.

Jean Martinon also recorded these suites but as with the Mari I have not heard his version. Curiously Mena did not include any of this work in his two discs of Pierné for Chandos which given the substance and scale of the music – and the significance of the score in the composer’s overall oeuvre - is something of a surprise. So for a listener curious to dabble in the enchanting and attractive world of Pierné, this disc is a very good entry point as the type and style of the music plays to the strengths of the composer – concise and picturesque.

As mentioned, the engineering is first rate and the playing a consistent joy. Paul Conway contributes a fairly brief but useful and informative liner note. The only quibble really is not filling the disc with the missing section of the ballet’s Suite No.1. But the hope must remain that these same artists will return to explore further the attractive music of Gabriel Pierné.

Nick Barnard


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