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Clair de Lune: Orchestral Favourites
New Symphony Orchestra of London/Raymond Agoult (all except Waldteufel)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Douglas Gamley (Waldteufel)
rec. 1957-1974 ELOQUENCE 482 7339 [66:17 + 74:18]
Let’s be honest – you’re not always in the mood for the Missa solemnis, Mahler’s ninth or Parsifal. Sometimes, after a hard day, you’d just prefer something relatively undemanding to wash over you as you enjoy a well-deserved moment of relaxation. If that’s the case, then perhaps Raymond Agoult is your man.
Mr Agoult, so Raymond Tuttle’s useful booklet essay informs us, “has been considered something of a mystery due to the paucity of biographical information about him. In fact, it has been suggested that he did not exist at all, and that ‘Raymond Agoult’ was the nom de disque of some other conductor who could not be identified for contractual reasons”. It is certainly the case that Agoult does not figure in the 734 closely-printed pages of John L. Holmes’s exhaustive study Conductors on record (London, 1982), which, given that you probably won’t have heard of most of its profiled musicians (a hypothetical Agoult entry would have snuggled in between those of Niklaus Aeschbacher and Herbert Ahlendorf), does suggest a deeply obscure status. And, before anyone makes the suggestion that he might have been excluded because he specialised in the lighter orchestral repertoire, it’s worth pointing out that Conductors on record includes entries on such easy-listening specialists as Eric Robinson and Annunzio Mantovani.
Perhaps, however, the tide has turned in the 21st century for we now have a reasonably substantial Wikipedia entry that offers more than a few scraps of useful information – not least that, wearing his composer’s hat, the evidently rather cosmopolitan Agoult seems to have penned such intriguing-sounding pieces as Madame Guillotine and Honouring the haggis. None of his own works feature, however, on this newly-released Decca Eloquence compilation which usefully collects together all his recorded output as originally issued on two Decca/RCA LPs – Overture! Overture! (1957) and Clair de lune (1959). Typically for recordings supervised by Decca engineers in the 1950s, both discs were much prized at the time of their release - and have been ever since - by audiophile collectors.
While the somewhat eclectic collection of tracks from Clair de lune, all played by the New Symphony Orchestra of London, make up a somewhat bizarre listening sequence, the individual pieces are very well executed. Marked andante religioso by the composer, the Méditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs supposedly depicts a moment of contemplation on matters penitential and divine. Here, however, extracted from that specifically spiritual context, Agoult instead exploits the music’s full romantic potential, aided not a little by his clearly very skilled – though sadly unidentified – solo violinist.
Meanwhile, the orchestra’s strings en masse are evidently an equally accomplished body, as demonstrated by the full, richly-burnished tone that they contribute to Tchaikovsky’s Chant sans paroles and Andante cantabile. Their carefully-crafted and rather moving performance of Massenet’s La dernier sommeil de la Vierge gives us the opportunity to appreciate Agoult’s ability to conjure and control mood and musical atmosphere. Meanwhile, two other tracks demonstrate his band’s versatility, with Gluck’s Dance of the blessed spirits majoring on filigree delicacy and finely delivered precision while Bach’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme as arranged by Sir Granville Bantock offers a demonstration of heavyweight orchestral thrust and power.
What a glorious piece Clair de lune can be when played by a full orchestra! On the basis that if you’re going to do it at all then you might as well pull out all the stops, my own favourite arrangement is the full-blown romantic wallow by Lucien Cailliet (frequently misnamed Caillet). Henri Pierre Edouard Mouton’s cooler version is, however, somewhat truer to the spirit of Debussy’s original and is certainly very well played here by Agoult and his orchestra.
Fauré’s Pavane pour une infante défunte is another enjoyable, if less distinctively delivered, track, while, if Elgar’s Dream children somewhat outstays its welcome, that is, I think, the fault of the composer rather than of the performers.
The six other Agoult-directed tracks, once more with the New Symphony Orchestra of London, are all overtures written within a 25 years timespan in the mid-19th century. Each aspires to little more than the accepted purposes of an overture at that time – to alert anyone still at the bar or gossiping in the foyer that it was time to take their seat, to settle them in comfortably for the forthcoming opera, to titillate them by hinting at some of the more memorable melodies to come and to create a mood appropriate to the production. Quite frankly, there is little to differentiate one of these pieces from any of its fellows. Nonetheless, unlike their associated operas or the dozens of other overtures written in that period, they have managed to survive in the public consciousness thanks to their catchy, frequently rumpty-tumpty ear-worm melodies. Agoult and his players deliver accomplished and vivacious accounts of them all, though, in the four cases where comparison may be made, they cannot quite compete with the exceptionally idiomatic performances from Albert Woolf and the oh-so-French Paris Conservatoire Orchestra as heard on another Eloquence release that was very warmly welcomed by my colleague Dan Morgan back in 2011 (review).
Agoult’s two LPs didn’t provide sufficient material to fill a pair of CDs, so Douglas Gamley’s National Philharmonic Orchestra recordings of Waldteufel waltzes have been brought in to complete disc 2. These are decent, well-played accounts that happily increase the composer’s rather meagre representation on CD. Waldteufel is, after all, not to be sneezed at: Toscanini himself, at the height of his fame, gave a broadcast performance of Les patineurs and then went on to make a studio recording (included on RCA Victor Gold Seal GD 60308) that is really rather delightful – even if, at some points, so characteristically driven as to suggest that these particular skaters must be of Olympic Gold Medal standard. It’s a great shame, by the way, that Henry Krips’s much-loved Waldteufel collection, played by the Philharmonia Promenade Orchestra and a mainstay of the old Classics for Pleasure LP catalogue, hasn’t yet, to my knowledge, appeared on CD.
As noted at the opening of this review, it’s sometimes said that Raymond Agoult is a figure of mystery. It would be useful however, if someone would clear up another puzzle. While it is well known that the National Philharmonic Orchestra was a pick-up band of musicians individually selected from London’s top orchestras for the specific purpose of making studio recordings, what exactly was the New Symphony Orchestra of London? It was clearly a very accomplished band of musicians and often appeared on discs in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, some of those releases – accompanying Heifetz under Sir Malcolm Sargent, for instance – were very high-profile affairs. But was the NSOL yet another pick-up band or was it one of the major London orchestras performing pseudonymously for contractual purposes? And who, by the way, was the solo violinist whose artistry is so apparent in the Méditation from Thaïs? I have consulted my colleague Jonathan Woolf – a pretty authoritative source of knowledge on recording history – but even he finds the surviving evidence somewhat contradictory. Do we, I wonder, have any MusicWeb readers who may have actually played in the NSOL? The dates certainly make it possible and it would be great to have at least one mystery solved once and for all.
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation from Thaïs (1894) [4:31] Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Chant sans paroles (1867) [2:44] Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Pavane (1887) [5:35] Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Dream Children (1902) [7:31] Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918), orch. Edouard MOUTON
Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque (1890, rev. 1905) [4:24] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750), arr. Sir Granville BANTOCK
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (1731) [5:23] Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Andante cantabile (1871), orchestral version [8:06] Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Dance of the blessed spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) [7:58] Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge from La Vierge (1880) [4:58] Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Overture Si j’étais roi (1852) [6:49] Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Overture Les diamants de la couronne (1841) [7:30] Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Overture Die leichte Kavallerie (1866) [6:11]
Overture Ein Morgen, ein Mittag, ein Abend in Wien (1844) [7:38]
Overture Pique dame (1864) [7:19] Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Overture Zampa (1831) [7:50] ÉMILE WALDTEUFEL (1837-1915)
Waltz Les patineurs, op. 183 (1882) [6:07]
Waltz Mon rêve, op.151 (1877) [8:07]
Waltz Toujours ou jamais, op. 156 (1877) [6:59]
Valse militaire Les grenadiers, op. 207 (1886) [4:46]
Waltz España, op. 236 (1886) [4:59]
Waltz Dolorès, op. 170 (1880) [7:06]
Waltz Pomone, op. 155 (1877) [6:19]
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