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Alfred BRUNEAU (1857-1934)
Messidor, Act IV: Prélude (1897) [5:54]
L'Attaque du Moulin Suite (1893) [21:39])
Naïs Micoulin, Act I: Prélude (1907) [6:13]
Messidor, Act III Tableau 1: La Légende de l'Or (1897) [30:13]
Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. 2017, L'Auditori, Barcelona, Spain
NAXOS 8.573888 [63:59]

A Parisian, Alfred Bruneau entered the Paris Conservatoire when he was 16. His instrument was the cello. He studied composition with Massenet and such was his merit that in his thirties he secured the Légion d’honneur. Widely travelled, on a variety of music missions, he was also a combative music critic. As a composer he was notable, among other things, for favouring realism in his operas. He was a close and sympathetic friend of Émile Zola and the two of them worked closely on Bruneau's ‘drame lyrique’ L’Attaque du moulin.

A major portion of Bruneau's creativity was devoted to opera: Ouragan (1901), L'Enfant Roi, a lyric comedy (1905) and Lazare, a lyric drama (1905); all three used texts by Zola. Naïs Micoulin (1907), La faute de l'abbé Mouret (1907), Les quatre journées (1916) were based on Zola. There were other operas: Le roi Candaule (1920, a risqué story that also drew an opera from Zemlinsky), Le jardin du paradis (1923), Angelo, tyran de Padoue (1928) and Virginie (1930). Add to these the ballet Les bacchantes (1887) based on Euripides, and two symphonic poems (the highly regarded La belle au bois dormant (1884) and Penthésilée (1888); the latter subject also favoured by Othmar Schoeck). There's a reputedly very considerable Requiem (1889). Bruneau died in Paris on 15 June 1934.

The music on this disc dates from the 1890s and is both sumptuous and concentrated in the unwaveringly romantic way it has of holding a mood. The warmly bathed oozing and slow regal climax of the Act IV Prélude to Messidor immediately asserts this. Messidor was a four-act operatic "drame lyrique" for which Zola wrote the libretto. Messidor was premiered in 1897 and enjoyed initial success. This was not sustained, although its decline in popularity is linked with the composer and Zola being active supporters of Alfred Dreyfus during his famous trial. It was taken as the vanguard for a French approach to the 'verismo' pioneered in Italy by Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Cilea. By the way, Messidor is the name of the tenth month of the French Republican Calendar. The Prelude ends in an unhurried sunset.

La Légende de l'Or from Messidor is a ballet. It originally served as a rather over-balanced (it is 30 minutes long) prelude to Messidor. Then moved to precede Act III, it was later restored to its starting-gate position. A continuous sequence, it shows all the usual and attractive Bruneau trademarks: a brief revelling in sovereign brass-bench apocalyptics, and extensive writing for softly beckoning strings and woodwind. There are some eldritch elements too, as befits a plot which incorporates magic, joy, beauty, guilt and confession. There is even a Rimsky-like oriental passage (13:20). The string writing has the composer's characteristic sheen and calorific value. Indulgently garrulous pieces like this permit the mind to drift. That said, the listener is always drawn back by Bruneau's carefully calculated and comforting embrace with sentimentality.

The 22-minute suite from the Zola collaboration that is the opera L’Attaque du moulin begins, sensibly enough, with the Act I Prélude: another masterly example of how Bruneau could take a miniature and establish quickly and securely a glowingly triumphant and unglitzy mood. The mystery and warrior tableau that is the central La Guerre. La Forêt manages to be poetically intimate, honeyedly intense (6:40) and a brazen suggestion of war. The suite is rounded out with the flighty Les Fiançailles au Moulin which seems to take the dances of Massenet and Bizet as lively models. It then succumbs to this composer's magnetic pull towards poetic self-absorption. It is his thing and he does it well. This tendency is expressed in music that is reminiscent of Massenet. This time it is more in the nature of his teacher's Le dernier sommeil de la vierge and Méditation from Thais. This final part of the suite ends in what amounts to a bacchanale.

From the noughties of the 20th century comes the Act I: Prélude to Naïs Micoulin, another Zola inspiration, but written after Zola's death in 1902. It is a further example of Bruneau's gift for a steady ascent towards a warm grandeur that yet avoids being overly sugar-rich. It ends peacefully, yet seems to set the scene for what is to come.

The contents list for this disc reads as a thing of orchestral highlights - rags and tatters. Still it is not as if Wagner and Verdi have been immune from this sort of treatment. Also, it offers convenient access to a composer little known despite a 1992 disc on Marco Polo. In that connection it is worth noting that this Ang disc is newly recorded. It is not to be confused with the identical programme on a Marco Polo CD by the Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra/James Lockhart (8.223498).

The extremely useful and satisfying liner notes are by Dominic Wells: indispensable in this little-known territory.

Ang is no stranger to Naxos. He is the conductor for a disc of Zhou and Chen (8.570611), Dutilleux (8.573596), Meyerbeer Overtures (8.573195), Lalo and Manén Violin Concertos (8.573067), Smetana's Festive Symphony (8.573672) and Offenbach's Overtures (8.573694). Well accustomed to getting a handle on little known scores, he makes no apologies for Bruneau's music; nor do the orchestra and engineers. The sound and playing match the music and show Bruneau as a master of orchestration and of the romantic spirit of the moment.

Rob Barnett

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