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French Music for Ballet
Henri SAUGUET (1901-1989)
Les Forains (1945) [25:15]
Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912)
Ballet Suite from Hérodiade (1881 rev. 1884) [9:34]
Jacques IBERT (1890 - 1962)
Les amours de Jupiter (1945) [33:10]
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2018, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
CHANDOS CHAN20132 [68:19]

For all the breadth and diversity of Neeme Järvi's discography, French ballet music is not necessarily a genre that he would be associated with. He was days short of his 81st birthday when this disc was recorded in 2018 and it is a tribute to his enduring musical energy and curiosity that the recording conveys the vigour and brilliance that has typified his recording career.

None of the three scores on this disc are première recordings but neither are they at all familiar. One programming query; the Massenet is a dance divertissement from Act IV of his opera Hérodiade - a French Grand Opera from 1881. Both the Sauguet and Ibert scores are complete neo-classical ballets choreographed by Roland Petit and performed in consecutive seasons immediately after World War II. Hence, these latter make for an interesting comparison with the Massenet a slightly incongruous - in context - make-weight. Outside of his native France, Sauguet's name remains little known. This 1945 ballet - Les Forains (The Fairground People) - according to the liner note remains his best known score. The only other 'modern' recording seems to have been made on EMI/Warner from Michel Plasson in Toulouse which I have not heard. At just over twenty five minutes the score is attractively concise, makes no grand emotional statements and bubbles with brio and bravura. The narrative is simple in the extreme; a troop of travelling players arrive, set up their show, perform it and leave. The performance section; track 5 La Représentation gives individual dancers - and the orchestra - a chance to shine - but I must admit the score as a whole struggles to live on long in my memory. Interestingly it was dedicated "a la mémoire d'Erik Satie" and certainly this dedication extends to writing a score rather in the dry-humoured spirit of the older composer. Certainly the mood of this work is in sharp contrast to his contemporaneous Symphony No.1 'Symphonie expiatoire' which memorialises the just-finished war and France's role in that conflict.

Throughout the disc the playing of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is a model of modern orchestral playing - alert, virtuosic as required, and dynamic. My main concern is that Jarvi's reading focuses more on energy than wit and the rather resonant recording - with the orchestra slightly set back into the generous acoustic of the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallin - detracts from the spry detail of the score. Without other recorded versions or a score to compare against, this has to remain an instinctive impression but there is a sense of abruptness that does not serve the music - as far as I can tell Jarvi takes more than two minutes off this score compared to Plasson. An additional effect of the recording acoustic is that Sauguet's rather insistent use of percussion - the side drum especially - does register to a greater degree than it might. The Galop Final [track 11] encapsulates all of the above quite well; brilliant but rather literal playing, too much percussion - glockenspiel in this instance -and generally a lack of flair. All in all something of a disappointment.

The Massenet divertissement at less than ten minutes in total for the five sections is another attractive but rather inconsequential score. Written to be danced by the female corps de ballet, the first four sections represent different races; Egyptians, Babylonians, Gauls and Phoenicians who then join together for a brief finale. The only directly comparable version I know is on a Naxos disc from Jean-Yves Ossonce and the New Zealand SO which surveys all the Massent orchestral suites and throws this in for good measure. Curiously, and perhaps a little surprisingly in this overtly theatrical music, Jarvi is again rather straight faced so all the merits of quality orchestral playing and dynamic - if reverberant - sound do not impact as much as they might. In the CD version of the complete opera on Sony from Gergiev in San Francisco only the Les Gauloises and Finale are included but that live performance is far more dynamic than either Jarvi or Ossonce - I see that Plasson's complete opera recording includes the complete divertissement. In any of these versions the appeal of Massenet's effectively scored, melodically attractive music is clear - as the liner note puts it rather well; "in terms of national types... all speak with an unashamedly French accent, but the result is some of Massenet's most charming and energetic ballet music".
The disc is completed with another neo-classical ballet - Ibert's Les amours de Jupiter [Jupiter's amorous adventures] - and really the title says it all providing a vehicle for the coupling and recoupling - balletic and otherwise - of various male and female soloists and ensembles. On disc Ibert has been reasonably well represented away from the ever popular Divertissement - this current score appearing on a 2015 Timpani disc. On YouTube you can hear a spectacularly approximate performance by the Orchestra of the Paris Opera under the composer's direction which reminds you just how much average orchestral standards have improved in the last fifty years or so. This ballet seems to encapsulate much of Ibert's mature style, a certain neo-classical coolness tempered with jazzy syncopations and an astringently brilliant use of harmony. I find this to be considerably more interesting as a score than the Sauguet. Again the Estonian players perform with considerable skill and sophistication but I cannot help feeling that Jarvi is just too literal. Try the Solo d'Europe [track 20] which verges on a Gershwinesque use of harmony and allure. Beautifully played here but without that extra element of sway or sensuality that could lift the music onto another plain. Conversely the jittering syncopations of Entrée de Danaé et des deux geôliers [track 27] suffers by being fractionally lacking in ensemble as well as bite in the rhythm crossing accents. That said the following section features a meltingly beautiful clarinet solo.

Works such as the Sauguet or the Ibert were never meant to have the great emotional uplift or surge of a Swan Lake let alone a Romeo & Juliet so it is quite wrong to expect that kind of response from these intentionally quite modest scores. But that does not fully explain my abiding disappointment here. I would imagine that at Jarvi's age he chooses his recording projects with care so I must assume that these scores engage him more than it sounds they do. Aside from Ralph Couzens as the executive producer this disc is produced, engineered and edited by Tammo Sumera. As mentioned, the sound is good but to my ear not ideal for this type of repertoire. Presentation is in typically good Chandos style; tri-lingual booklet with useful music and biographical notes. Not the finest disc from this label or conductor that I have heard.

Nick Barnard


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