Méhul was one of the most important composers working in France during
the time of Beethoven. His operas differ from each other in character
and plot. Even when their “happy” ends mean that they fall within the
category of “comedies” there is usually an underlying seriousness and
nobility of theme which links them directly to the music of Gluck and,
in turn, to that of Berlioz.
It would be wonderful to welcome complete recordings of all the operas
represented here, or even of the Overtures in their original versions,
but what it included here is so enjoyable that it is best simply to
enjoy it on its own terms. Each of the Overtures has been arranged for
wind octet, presumably by Mathieu Lussier. Unlike the octet arrangements
of operas by Mozart, Beethoven and others that have been recorded before
one of the oboes is replaced by a flute. This adds much to the variety
of texture and colour available to the arranger and the results are
thoroughly convincing. Only occasionally did I wish for the greater
variety of the full orchestrations but not at all in the one Overture
where I expected to - Le Chasse de jeune Henri
, which unsurprisingly
is dominated by horn calls in the original version. The two gallant
horn players here are kept busy but manage to avoid any feeling of being
over-extended. The booklet draws attention to the use of period instruments.
This is odd when the works themselves have been rewritten but the actual
sounds of the instruments are delightfully pungent and varied. The players
have to work hard when they lack the string foundation of the original
versions but they phrase with much character and exemplary technique.
The recording is close but not excessively so.
The other works all relate to Revolutionary celebrations, and on the
whole their Gluckian nobility outweighs any reminders of the Red Army
Band. For much of the time it is like listening to an early and much
smaller version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.
The only comparative disappointment was the Le Chant du départ
which lacked the sheer energy and fervour that it usually has in vocal
performances. It is however only a very small part of the whole.
Overall this is an enterprising, well played and well
disc which is likely to provide much pleasure.