Les Nuits de Paris Bru Zane

Les Nuits de Paris
Dance Music from Folies Bergère to Opéra
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2022, Théâtre Raymond Devos, Tourcoing, France
Bru Zane BZ2005 [69]

François-Xavier Roth and his period instrument orchestra Les Siècles present us here with Paris’s response to Viennese Strauss mania. Seventeen waltzes, polkas, galops and the like, written in the latter part of the nineteenth century, by thirteen composers, some well-known, such as Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Delibes, others I’d not heard of, for example, Hervé (my first thought was “didn’t he create the Tintin comic books”, until Google reminded me that was Hergé).

The notes begin by quoting an 18th century expression “the Italians sing, the Germans pray, and the French dance”, which obviously stereotypes each country, but undoubtedly there is at least a grain of truth underlying it. Beginning with Méhul’s ballet of 1800 Dansomanie (Dance Mania), French music of the century was dominated by dance rhythms. The programme mixes selections from ballet, opera and music hall, in such a way to suggest that they were considered of equal value then (and possibly now).

It’s not feasible to comment on each work: I would run out of adjectives very quickly. There is an obvious similarity across the seventeen pieces because of their origins and intentions. That’s not to say they all sound the same, but certainly I did come to the conclusion that the disc was best listened to in smaller bites. The continuity of jollity, gaiety and swirling rhythms did become a little tiring. That’s not the fault of the performers who give their utmost; it’s simply that much of the music was never intended for more than superficial entertainment; for dancing, rather than listening to. In that, it succeeds very well, but for an unbroken sixty-nine minutes … perhaps not. 

So let me pick out a few items. Unsurprisingly, quality showed through in the ballets taken from the Saint-Saëns and Gounod operas. The Valse des âmes infidèles (Waltz of the Unfaithful Souls) from Dubois’ ballet La Farandole was the first to really grab my attention. Full of grace and twittering winds, it is easy to see why the critics of the day were unanimous in their praise. The Overture from Thomas’ opera Raymond may seem an odd inclusion, as it is not strictly intended as dance music. Perhaps that’s what makes it stand out, but it really took my fancy. What did intrigue me was the appearance part way through of a combination of rhythm and melody that strongly brought to mind the William Tell overture. Frustratingly, the generally excellent notes were totally silent about the piece. Paris had its own Strauss – Isaac, born in Strasbourg and no relation – but based on the two works presented here, his music is in a deep part of the shadow cast by his Viennese namesakes. Mind you, none of the seventeen pieces here comes within a country mile of the great works of the Johann Strausses.

I have read about the very high production standards of the Bru Zane label in numerous reviews, but this was my first experience (French opera isn’t my thing). The audio quality is very good, and the booklet is beautifully produced, with numerous contemporary photographs and artworks. The notes, in three languages, are indeed very good: each composer gets a half page of biography, and the works are put into their cultural context of late 19thcentury Paris. I would have liked to have seen the date of composition of each piece included in the tracklist. I realise it’s a small thing, given that most, though not all, can be found in the notes, but an easy-to-follow listing would have been a help in appreciating any development in the styles over time.  

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of late 19th century Paris, and like most very sweet items, best consumed in small quantities.

David Barker

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Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Le Carillon : Valse au cabaret
Hervé (1825-1892)
Paris Exhibition : Espagnoles et Séguedille 
Jeanne Danglas (1871-1915)
L’amour s’éveille (valse) 
Isaac Strauss (1806-1888)
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924)
La Farandole : Valse des âmes infidèles 
Émile Waldteufel (1837-1915)
Grande Vitesse (galop) 
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Faust : Ballet. Les Troyennes 
Victorin Joncières (1839-1903)
Le Chevalier Jean : Ballet. Valse 
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Le Timbre d’argent : Valse 
Emile Waldteufel 
Valse des patineurs 
Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896)
Raymond : Ouverture 
Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892)
Gretna-Green : Valse de Colin-Maillard 
Philippe Musard (1792-1859)
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)
Coppélia : Valse lente 
Isaac Strauss 
Quadrille sur « Orphée aux Enfers » d’Offenbach 
Sports in England : Valse du mal de mer 
Émile Waldteufel 
Bella Bocca (polka)