Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Overtures and Entr'actes from the Paris Operas
Robert le Diable (1831)
Overture [3:24]
L'Étoile du Nord (1854)
Overture [9:08]
Les Huguenots (1836) (excerpts)
1. Overture [4:48]
2. Act I: Orgie (Drinking Song) [3:36]
3. Act II: Entr'acte [2:32]
4. Act V: Entr'acte [00:39]
5. Act V: Ballet [2:02]
L'Africaine (1865) (excerpts)
1. Overture [4:33]
2. Act II: Entr'acte [1:33]
3. Act III: Entr'acte [3:44]
4. Act V: Entr'acte [1:24]
5. Act V: Grand scène du mancenillier [1:41]
Dinorah (1859) (excerpts)
1. Overture [13:16]
2. Act II: Entr'acte [2:55]
3. Act III: Entr'acte [1:45]
Le Prophète (1849) (excerpts)
1. Overture [11:06]
2. Act IV: Coronation March [3:17]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. 6-8 June 2013, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.573195 [71:23]

The 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer’s death got off to a cracking start with the Barcelona Symphony’s disc of ballet music from the operas (review). It’s been in and out of my player many times in recent weeks, and no wonder as it’s so well played and recorded. I particularly admire conductor Michał Nesterowicz for his elegant way with this music; it’s naturally phrased, rhythms are well sprung and the orchestra are clearly having fun. The programme is well chosen too, so the carousel of lovely tunes never loses its freshness and vitality.
Naxos have followed that up with this CD of overtures and entr’actes, courtesy of the Singapore-born maestro Darrell Ang and the New Zealand Symphony. Reading some of the more fulsome comments and articles about this young conductor confirms that the cult of celebrity is all-pervasive. At the very least it sets up expectations that will be hard to meet, but I suspect it’s more about selling youthful talent to a younger audience. That said, it’s entirely possible that the budding Karajan, Abbado or Bernstein might have been marketed in a similar fashion had they come to prominence in the age of social media.
Idle musings aside, how does Ang shape up on the podium? He starts with a thrilling account of the overture to Robert le Diable, the first of Meyerbeer’s Parisian grands opèras. As I was reminded in the Nesterowicz collection the devil really does have the best tunes; the mighty preamble to the work, with its rumble of bass, vaunting brass and chatter-silencing tuttis, is here recorded in floor-shaking, rafter-rattling sound. Musically and sonically this is the very antithesis of those restrained, nicely pointed little ballets, so Ang’s insistence on maximum thrust and spectacle is entirely apt. Over the top? Oh yes, but what a terrific calling card for composer and maestro alike.
The earlier CD reveals Meyerbeer as an appealing tunesmith, and this new one highlights his dramatic prowess too. Little wonder, then, that he was the darling of Paris audiences for so long. The overture to the Russian-themed L'Étoile du Nord has its moments, but for all that it isn’t particularly memorable. The New Zealanders play with commendable enthusiasm and, where appropriate, with melting loveliness. And goodness, that pell-mellish finale is breathtakingly done. Ditto the brass chorales in the scene-setter to Les Huguenots. Indeed, Ang is at his best in these scruff-grabbers rather than the more reflective passages, as his raunchy Drinking Song and propulsive reading of the Act 5 Ballet so clearly demonstrate.
The compact overture to L’Africaine is well done, although one senses that Ang is waiting impatiently for the next display piece to come along. Given his success with the latter I suspect most listeners will be doing the same. Don’t be tempted to skip the three entr’actes though, for there’s much to enjoy; there’s some gorgeous woodwind playing and, despite their brevity, these excerpts display a compelling sense of drama. The Grand scène du mancenillier blends passion and nobility, and Ang gives the music a breadth and weight that’s simply overwhelming. The formidable recording certainly helps.
The overture to Meyerbeer’s second opèra comique, Dinorah, is imaginatively scored and played; rhythms aren’t always as supple as I’d like, but there’s no denying Ang’s drive and communicative skills here and elsewhere. The organ is well caught amidst the instrumental hurly-burly, as are the cymbals, and the moments of pomp are gloriously executed. Still reeling from that aural onslaught – the best kind, not the brazen, hi-fi one – I found much to savour in the two entr’actes that follow. The fruity brass – a notable characteristic of this recording – is a delight, and the firm, authoritative timps deserve a mention in dispatches.
This disc ends with the overture and Coronation March from Le Prophète; the mighty honks of brass and the sheer declamatory power of the former made me grin foolishly, while the latter – quite briskly played – raised my spirits even more. Ang’s refusal to linger and mould the music really pays off here; that plus crisp ensemble and fabulous, unfatiguing sound ensure a truly exhilarating send-off.
Listeners of a delicate disposition may well need a whiff of the sal volatile after all that unbridled energy; hardier souls will simply press Play and relish these head-banging performances once more. The marketing of Darrell Ang may be targeted at more youthful listeners, but he’s certainly converted this older one. It’s a fun CD, and a perfect opportunity to celebrate both the genius of Meyerbeer and the runaway talent of this young Singaporean conductor.
Intoxicating performances, thrillingly recorded; Darrell Ang is one to watch.
Dan Morgan

Postscript – July 2014
This recording has also been released as a high-res download (24-bit/96kHz). It sells on for $19.27 (£11.20), which is a hefty premium on the $13 (£7.50) charged for the Redbook CD. It’s one of a few such downloads from Naxos, and given the spectacular engineering of the disc I didn’t expect much difference between the two. How wrong I was; the dynamic range is simply staggering, instrumental strands are easier to discern, and those melting tunes are even more beguiling than before. More important this all-revealing download confirms Darrell Ang’s intuitive and penetrating grasp of this music. Even if you don’t ‘do’ downloads why not try a track or two? The Drinking Song from Les Huguenots (tr. 4) and the overture to Dinorah (tr. 13) are a good place to start. DM


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