Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Overtures - Volume 1
La circassienne (The girl from the Caucasus) (1861) [7:59]
Le cheval de bronze (The bronze horse) (1835) [7:28]
Le domino noir (The black domino) (1837) [7:42]
Fra Diavolo (Brother Devil) (1830) [8:18]
La fiancée (The betrothed) (1829) [7:46]
Les diamants de la couronne (The crown diamonds) (1841) [7:23]
Marco Spada (1852) [9:56]
L'enfant prodigue (The prodigal son) (1850) [7:21]
Orchestre de Cannes/Wolfgang Dörner
rec. Théâtre Croisette de l'hôtel JW Marriott, Cannes, 24-26 June 2015
NAXOS 8.573553 [63:54]
Having greatly enjoyed the Orchestre de Cannes/Wolfgang Dörner's previous CD of dance music by Joseph, I looked forward to this new release with some anticipation.
In the heyday of the LP, discs of Romantic era overtures were quite common and many of them included one or two by Auber - usually La muette de Portici (1828), Fra diavolo (1830), Le cheval de bronze (1835), Le domino noir (1837) or Les diamants de la couronne (1841). This new Naxos release includes four of those five and is marketed as "overtures 1", suggesting that at least one more selection will follow in due course. In fact, as Auber composed 31 opéras comiques, seven operas, three drames lyriques and a handful of stage works in other vocal genres, the potential exists for quite a few more discs.
Nineteenth century society had an almost insatiable appetite for live musical entertainment in a wide variety of forms. A great number of compositions were primarily functional and ephemeral, produced by jobbing composers. Some of the latter, like Auber or Lanner, remain somewhere near the fringes of our consciousness, but most of them are now completely forgotten. It would be idle to pretend that the overtures on this new disc are much more than tuneful scene-setters but, of course, there's nothing at all wrong with that: there are plenty of times when we aren't necessarily in the mood to listen to heavyweight Bach, Beethoven or Bruckner.
These eight Auber overtures will almost certainly bring a smile to your face and a tap to your foot. Booklet notes writer Robert Letellier describes them as "fresh and charming" and suggests that it was the composer's self-imposed limitations - "he avoided any excess of emotion", "his restrained art, his pared style", "controlled emotion" - that accounts for their contemporary success and their subsequent survival in the orchestral repertoire. Six derive from opéras comiques, one from the fully-fledged opera L'enfant prodigue and another from the opéra féerie Le cheval de bronze. Most of them, regardless of their derivation, share certain characteristics. They tend to be, give or take, about seven or eight minutes long; they usually begin by grabbing the theatre audience's attention with a bang or, as in La fiancée or Fra diavolo, with a call to attention on the snare drum. Within less than a minute or so they begin presenting some of the opera's big tunes - or, no doubt, what Auber hoped would become its big tunes. They then conclude in invariably upbeat fashion - usually with a page or two of foot-stomping rum-ti-tum (La circassienne, Le cheval de bronze, Fra diavolo and Les diamants de la couronne). Others end with something a little more imaginative and unbuttoned (Le domino noir, L'enfant prodigue and Marco Spada - the latter better-known these days in the form of the ballet for which Auber subsequently reworked his score, reviewed here). One concludes with a delightful degree of elegance (the relatively early La fiancée).
It goes without saying that Auber never intended his overtures to be heard in sequence like this. As many commentators, including my colleague Dan Morgan, have observed, while they are each charming and entertaining in their own way they are essentially lightweight confections that lack much in the way of real individuality. As a result, it can be quite numbing to listen to a whole CD of them at a single sitting. Having done so, I can confirm how hard it is to tell my crown diamonds from my bronze horse or, perhaps more worryingly, my fiancée from my Marco.
Where I do diverge somewhat from Dan, however, is on the quality of this particular new disc. As he observes, there is a classic vintage account of familiar 19th century overtures - including five by Auber - on a highly desirable 2-CD set conducted by Albert Wolff). It's entitled Overtures in hi-fi and, given that the original recordings were made between 1951 and 1957, the sound is, at times, so remarkably vivid and immediate as to bring the word "spectacular" to mind. This is, I agree, a very special pair of discs, even if, as Dan notes in his original review, the Auber tracks are arguably among the weakest.
Wolff's performances are, though, very much of their own time. Closely associated for most of his career with French musical life and particularly, if intermittently, with the Opéra Comique, he was almost invariably typecast - and employed in the recording studio - as a "French" conductor. Moreover, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, with which he recorded his Auber, exhibited, typically for that time, a traditional and typical "French" orchestral sound. As we all know, that contrasts sharply with our own era when conductors and individual musicians globe-trot on a virtually permanent basis and most orchestras seem to aspire to what many hear as bland orchestral homogeneity. As a result, the old notions about nationally-distinctive orchestral sounds and styles (blaring Soviet brass, distinctive French woodwinds, American insistence on precision) are largely things of the past. While, then, we should be grateful to have Wolff's elegant, charismatic and supremely idiomatic "French" accounts preserved on disc, I suspect that we won't be hearing their like again any time soon.
Albert Wolff selected only the most popular Auber overtures for his recordings and carefully coaxed, teased and burnished each one to maximum effect in the same way that he did for similar showstoppers by the likes of Berlioz, Hérold and Suppé. That, however, is clearly not Wolfgang Dörner's intention. Although his eight tracks include four of Auber's best-known pieces - a canny marketing ploy to entice potential buyers into committing to the series - he presents a useful cross-section of overtures written over a period of 32 years and, in doing so, offers a more balanced and nuanced picture of the composer's output. If that description makes the disc sound merely worthy or even a little dull, that's not my intention. Rest assured that each of the tracks has its particular individual felicities and none outstays its welcome - though, at a couple of minutes longer than the others, it's arguable that Marco Spada demonstrates how wise Auber was to stick as a rule to seven minutes or so.
Auber wrote these enjoyable overtures not as stand-alone orchestral showpieces but as workaday, practical introductions to the series of operas that put food on the family table. Bearing that in mind, I don't necessarily share Dan Morgan's obvious disappointment with Dörner's relatively straightforward approach. In fact, I rather like it and have the feeling that it's probably more representative of what a Wednesday night mid-19th century theatre audience would have heard than Albert Wolff's rather more (over?) sophisticated way in his recordings.
Dan was also highly critical of the sound on this new Naxos release, making reference to what he called its "dreadful sonics". That's strong language and, although I can see what he's getting at, I'm not as inclined to adopt such a critical perspective. For comparison's sake, I put both the Wolff disc and Dörner's into the CD player, concentrating on two contrasting passages: firstly a quiet one - the introduction to Fra Diavolo, with its 25" or so of unaccompanied drum rolls - and then one for full orchestra in the form of the opening to Le cheval de bronze. Having listened carefully to both, I agree that there's a certain degree of reverberation in the new Naxos disc, but while Dan's ears detect "the acoustic properties of a barn" my own pick up the sort of sound that might be emanating from a medium-sized bathroom. I suspect that, like all other listeners, Dan and I have our own preferences in that particular regard and that that inevitably affects our overall assessment of this - and any other - disc.
Interestingly enough, though, the exercise of making a direct comparison of Dörner with Wolff threw up one more finding. If you listen to the older disc all the way through, your ear quickly acclimatises itself to the 1950s Decca sound. But, listening just to Le cheval or any of the other overtures alongside the new disc's accounts demonstrates that - regardless of the fact that they exhibit less reverberation - Wolff's recordings now sound, at least to me, unnaturally bright, hard-edged and glassy. The 2015 Cannes orchestra, on the other hand, has been recorded in a far more natural fashion so that it sounds as though you have a real orchestra in front of you - even if they do happen to be playing from a point located somewhere between the washbasin and the WC.
In the end, then, I'm pleased to welcome this new disc to the catalogue and I certainly hope that Naxos will press on with the series. With so much of the core orchestral repertoire recorded many times over, it's always good to explore some of the less trodden byways of musical history. In this particular case, I doubt whether we're going to be discovering any newly revealed masterpieces, but I suspect that we’ll find plenty of good tunes and general bonhomie and hi-jinks along the way.
On the basis of what we've heard so far, Auber's overtures don't seem to have been individually distinctive. Nonetheless, I look forward, in future releases, to discovering whether we'll find more in the way of differences between the various tracks. With so much unknown material potentially in the offing, I can only speculate pleasurably about such intriguing possibilities to come as Julie (1805) who, according to her intriguing subtitle, is responsible for l'erreur d'un moment; L'ambassadrice (1836) which I take to be an early draft of Call me madam; and Jenny Bell whose comparatively proletarian name, I'd like to think, suggests that her opening aria might announce that Alas, there's trouble at t'mill.