The conductor Adriano has built up a fine reputation for discovering (or re-discovering) opulent
and colourful Late Romantic music and for his well-received Marco Polo film
music albums – particularly those devoted to Georges Auric. This new release
of music by the forgotten French composer Ernest Fanelli, whose patron was
Pierné, would seem to straddle both genres. Not only does this effulgent material
anticipate Respighi, Richard Strauss and Debussy (to mention just three composers)
but it also points the way to the film music of the mid-20th Century
– particularly that of Bernard Herrmann. Fanelli was regarded by many as
too avant-garde. Listen to this music composed in 1883/6 (although not premiered
until 1912, just one year before Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps) and
you will immediately hear why. As Adriano comments in his learned booklet
"Already in 1883 Fanelli uses whole-tone scales, intervals
of a ninth and picturesque harmonic and instrumental effects which later became
trademarks of the Impressionists. Polytonality, uneven metres, unmodulated
changes of harmonies, free ornamentation, the use of augmented triads and
an overall non-relation to basic tonality can be found in Tableaux
Symphoniques, perhaps the first example in French music history
in which sound and instrumental colour become principal means of musical expression
and in which a composer dares to transpose his purely sensorial impressions
and detaches himself from absolute music and traditional romantic tone-painting."
Fanelli's Tableaux symphoniques d'aprčs Le Roman de la Momi, to give
the work its proper French name, is presented here in two parts each with
three movements. Briefly it concerns the fate of Tahoser an Egyptian girl
who has fallen in love with Poëri a handsome young Hebrew. Ramses II the
mighty Pharaoh is attracted to her too and resolves to have her at all costs.
When Tahoser discovers that Poëri is in love with another woman, she languishes
and becomes ill. She is healed by the mysterious prophet Moses who initiates
her into the cult of Jehovah. Ramses manages to abduct Tahoser and becomes
an enemy of the Jews leading to the oft-told events of the plagues, the exile
and the parting of the Red Sea. Tahoser is crowned Queen of Egypt and discovered
in Pharaoh's tomb by a 19th century archaeologist who falls in
love with her mummy.
Part I entitled Thčbes is in three movements (tableaux).
The sultriness of the first tableau, suggesting the stiffling heat of the
streets of Thebes, impressed Ravel. The plaintive voice of a female slave
(mezzo-soprano Lydia Drahosova) accompanied by two harps and tambourines,
played behind the orchestra, was something of a novelty at the time. The
second tableau is set on the banks of the Nile where preparations are afoot
for the victorious return of the Pharaoh. The music turns from busy chatter
to languorous sighing as Tahoser catches sight of the handsome young Poëri.
The music here, nervous, edgy and full of yearning, underpinned by heavy ominous
bass drum rolls, sounds incredibly like a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score.
The final tableau of Part I depicts the triumphant procession of Ramses and
anticipates Debussy's Images and, uncannily, the crescendo of approaching
legions along the Appian Way in Respighi's Pines
of Rome, although the atmosphere is undeniably Egyptian. The orchestral
forces unleashed here are mighty indeed and it is advisable that you ensure
the neighbours are out! This crushing march with huge repeated gong crashes
and heavy bass drum rolls, like the tread of giant elephants, is only softened
momentarily as Pharaoh espies Tahoser in the crowd. Again the music's cell-like
patterns and extraordinary colourful orchestration suggest Bernard Herrmann.
I have to warn that this movement tends to rather overstay its welcome and
afterwards you could well be reaching for the Paracetamol.
Part II is again divided into three tableaux. Inside Pharaoh's palace
Ramses is massaged by his slaves and entertained by naked girl jugglers. Not
surprisingly, the music is exotic and sinuously sensuous. The second tableau
is an extension of the scene with grotesque jesters joining in. The music
is reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov but more often it is as advanced as Bartók
or Stravinsky. At various times during these two movements I was reminded
of several film music ideas: Ron Goodwin's Ascent/Descent of the Cable Car
from Where Eagles Dare, the morse-code type motif
used for by RKO-Radio for its radio mast and globe logo - and Bernard Herrmann's
North by Northwest and Vertigo music, for instance. The growing
passionate frenzy of the final tableau Chants triomphaux – Orgie is beheld with growing
indifference as Pharaoh becomes more and more infatuated with Tahoser. He learns that she is the
daughter of a high priest. The ladies of his court are racked by jealousy.
The music here is majestic, decadent and ambiguously menacing and very avant-garde.
Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray's Rhapsodie cambodgienne of 1882 is much more
of its time with straightforward melodies and harmonies. It is cast in two
colourful nine-minute movements that incorporate Cambodian melodies and suggest
the music of Balakirev or Rimsky-Korsakov. The opening movement commences
in pastoral vein and then reaps the whirlwind as the Gods of Earth and Water
combat to re-establish the land's fertility. The second part is devoted to
bombastic celebratory music.
Vivid Technicolor music incredibly advanced for its day anticipating
not only Respighi, Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky, but film music of the mid-20th
century – especially that of Bernard Herrmann. It might, at times, overstay
its welcome but it is played with such vivacity and enthusiasm that serious
criticism is disarmed. Great fun – but make sure the neighbours are out this
is heavy-weight stuff.