Neeme Jarvi Conducts Chabrier

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CHABRIER Joyeuse marche. Gwendoline: Overture. Habanera. España. Lamento. Bourée fantasque. 1 Suite Pastorale. L’Étoile: Overture; Two entr’actes. Le Roi malgré lui: Féte polonaise; Danse slave Neeme Järvi, cond; Suisse Romande O; 1 Alexandre Emard (eh) CHANDOS 5122 (SACD: 78:12)

The orchestral works of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) have always made a neat program for an LP or CD. Most of us got to know this high-spirited music through the recordings of Ernest Ansermet; now Neeme Järvi returns to Ansermet territory with the same band, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, although I daresay today’s orchestra contains none of the same personnel. (Ansermet’s final recording sessions took place in 1969.)

Järvi’s brisk, energetic style suits this music perfectly. He brings exuberance to the Joyeuse marche , which the composer himself described as “crazy,” finds all the myriad colors in the popular masterwork España , and paces the “Féte polonaise” from Le Roi malgré lui with such brio that it sounds like a freshly refurbished carousel.

As with several French composers of his generation, Chabrier was overwhelmed by the music of Wagner. He spent six years working on a Wagnerian opera, Gwendoline , and the overture clearly displays that influence. (The sleeve note likens it to Die Meistersinger but to my ears it is early Wagner, particularly Der fliegende Holländer , that informs this particular piece.) Järvi takes this work no more seriously than the rest of his program; he launches into it with exhilarating gusto and never lets up. It is an exciting performance that definitely surpasses Ansermet, whose rendition has always struck me as too sluggish.

Chabrier, a native of the Auvergne region, proved to be a strong influence on the French composers who followed him. His music was admired by Debussy, Poulenc and, especially, Ravel. The latter was devoted to Chabrier’s opera Le Roi malgré lui , a work full of marvelous set pieces, saddled with a virtually incoherent libretto. Ravel’s piano style was influenced by Chabrier’s Dix piéces pittoresques of 1880, and Chabrier himself orchestrated four of these piano pieces eight years later to create the Suite pastorale. In this work the composer’s sunny disposition encompasses an added vein of nostalgia—Chabrier looking back through rose-colored glasses at his Auvergne boyhood—and Järvi conveys the tender atmosphere sympathetically without romantic over-indulgence.

The late piano piece Bourée fantasque (1891) is played here in the usual orchestration, made by the composer’s conductor friend Felix Mottl in 1897. Mottl’s hand is heavier than Chabrier’s, though the scoring sounds less muddy in this performance than in some others, thanks to Järvi’s clarity. An interesting and much quirkier orchestration by Charles Koechlin recently appeared on a Hänssler disc (along with Koechlin’s orchestrations of Debussy’s Khamma and Fauré’s incidental music for Pelléas et Melisande ). In the Bourée fantasque , Mottl gives the opening motif quite sensibly to the cellos, whereas Koechlin gives it to the timpani! Needless to say I prefer Koechlin, and can recommend the Hänssler recording, which was reviewed in Fanfare 36:2 by Adrian Corleonis. About Koechlin’s scoring of Bourée fantasque , Corleonis commented: “Hearing this after the frequently performed rule-of-thumb orchestration by Felix Mottl is to grasp the distance between workmanlike utility and genius.” Extra works in Järvi’s program that are not usually included are the Overture and two brief interludes from the comic opera L’Étoile (1877), and the even earlier Lamento for orchestra. The latter piece is more conventional and less identifiable as Chabrier, but a pleasant interlude nonetheless.

The new disc is certainly recommendable on its own terms, but how does it stand up to the competition? Järvi maintains the authority of Ansermet in this repertoire, and it must be admitted that the latter’s recordings are sounding a little elderly these days. For a still great sounding old disc and vital performances, Paul Paray is one to hear (recently reissued in the Mercury Collection Vol. 2), though his program does not include the selections from L’Étoile, Lamento , or the Habanera . (Paray’s performance of the Gwendoline Overture is even brisker than Järvi’s: 8:44 as opposed to 9:23!) A 1996 DG disc from John Eliot Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is also competitive: it has been reissued recently in a cheap series, and includes a beautifully played Larghetto for French Horn and Orchestra that does not appear in other collections. Gardiner’s program is more cleanly recorded than the new Chandos disc, which, despite its spectacular range and Super Audio sound, places the Suisse Romande orchestra in a somewhat reverberant acoustic. Michel Plasson’s Chabrier recordings with L’Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse have been reissued many times by EMI, but how often we will see them in future is in doubt. EMI’s extensive catalog has been purchased by Warner Music, whose classical reissue policy has been inconsistent and piecemeal in the past. Plasson’s performances are authentically French and vibrant, and his program uniquely contains Chabrier’s vocal works with orchestra. The big EMI box of his recordings of French orchestral music (including his Chabrier) is highly recommended: see my review in Fanfare ’s Hall of Fame (34:6). However, if it’s just one disc you require, then the new Järvi program is worth the outlay, and you definitely won’t find yourself straining to hear the bass drum.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHSA 5122

  • UPC: 095115512227

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: Emmanuel Chabrier

  • Conductor: Neeme Järvi

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Suisse Romande Orchestra