> Jules Massenet [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Suite: Esclarmonde
Suite No. 1, Opus 13
Suite: Cendrillon
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Kenneth Jean
Rec April 1989, Tsuen Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong
NAXOS 8.555986 [57.59]


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Although he was chiefly an opera composer, and a very fine one at that, Massenet also wrote a body of sophisticated and accomplished orchestral music. Of that this compilation makes clear testimony; although none of these pieces can lay claim to greatness, they are all fluent in inspiration and sure in technique.

Previously issued on the Marco Polo label in 1991, this Naxos recording brings the music back into circulation at a bargain price. The standards of presentation are up to the company's usual high standard, with a clearly laid out leaflet and sound though sometimes anodyne notes from Keith Anderson, who has more to say about context than about the music.

What of the performances? The Hong Kong Orchestra is more than adequate, and there is a good discipline about their playing for Kenneth Jean, so that ensemble is tight and articulation clear. The strings, however, do not glow like those of the best international orchestras, and the brass do lack bite. Of course these things may result somewhat from the slightly dull and opaque recording, which lacks in depth of perspective.

These things do matter in this kind of music, which relies a great deal on richly coloured orchestral timbres and combinations, features which are under-characterised here. Massenet composed eight purely orchestral suites, in addition to those he created from existing operas, and the early Suite No. 1 (written in 1865 in Rome) is less atmospherically drawn than later examples. By all accounts it was not well received at its Parisian premiere, and though the music does not fail to please the ear, it lacks melodic and rhythmic vitality and personality.

The two operatic suites fare rather better. Both Esclarmonde and Cendrillon have the benefit of colourful and evocative story-lines and contexts, which gave stimulus to Massenet's imagination. Both the suites are entertaining and quite wide-ranging in expressive manner, and Esclarmonde in particular draws some interesting and evocative orchestral sounds from Massenet. This is an interesting disc which retails at a competitive price, but I am afraid I can only greet it with two cheers rather than three.

Terry Barfoot

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