Etoiles Poems BZ2007

Aux étoiles – French Symphonic Poems
Orchestre National de Lyon/Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider
rec. 2001/22, Auditorium de Lyon
Bru Zane BZ2007 [2 CDs: 147]

In addition to its extensive series of operas, composer portraits and songs, Bru Zane also produces more miscellaneous releases, such as this one, a 2-CD survey of French symphonic poems. The temptation might have been to focus on the little-known and the unrecorded and whilst there are previously unrecorded pieces here (four, I believe), the label has decided instead to contextualise them by recording tried and tested exemplars of the genre from the pens of such as Franck, Dukas, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns.

The years 1882-1883 saw a fluorescence of the symphonic poem: Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit, the revision of Ernest Guiraud’s Ouverture d’Arteveld, Chausson’s Viviane and Chabrier’s España were all composed in that compressed time period and all are represented here. This all corresponds to the post-Franco-Prussian War revival of symphonic music in the country, as well as the impetus provided by the death of Berlioz the year before, in 1869. More widely this survey starts with Saint-Saëns Danse macabre (1874) and ends with Charlotte Sohy’s Danse mystique of 1922, a half-century of compositional energy and finesse in a form well suited to concert programming.

The survey opens with the Franck in a spirited, perceptive reading more faithful to the score than the swaggering, classic Beecham recording. Guiraud’s overture is a fourteenth-century story of power and death, grand, brassy and triumphal with a brief fugal workout. One of the advantages of a set such as this is the focus applied by the Orchestre National de Lyon under conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, an exceptionally able violinist turned perceptive conductor. Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps was played at this year’s Prom concerts in London. Orchestrated by her in 1918, it’s a diaphanous, Debussian piece rich in harmonic incident, colour and vitality – a gauzy tapestry of sheer beauty. Dedicated to and premiered by Ysaÿe, d’Indy’s Istar is a theme and variations but in reverse, a fancy piece of compositional legerdemain that moves from the fanciful to the flighty to the dark side, albeit complete with near-obligatory fugato.

No programme such as this would be complete without L’Apprenti Sorcier though you’ll be more intrigued to encounter Alfred Bruneau’s La Belle au bois dormant, a luscious twelve-minute piece composed when Bruneau was 27, that shows signs of a Wagner infatuation – in this case, Tannhäuser. The final piece on the first disc is by Augusta Holmès, La Nuit et l’Amour, the interlude from the large-scale Ludus pro patria for chorus and orchestra with verse recitation and another strongly Franco-Wagnerian piece. Whereas this used to be heard of but never heard on disc, this is now Bru Zane’s second recording of it. You can also find it in the 8-CD box called Compositrices (review) where it’s played by the Orchestre national de Metz Grand Est under David Reiland. They’re both full-blooded and committed performances.

The second CD opens with another piece from that 8-CD box, Mel Bonis’s Le Rêve de Cléopâtre, a fluid, free and passionate work of real standing. Compositrices offers the chance to hear it with two of her other symphonic poems, Ophélie and Salomé, to form a triptych of flair. Bonis is emerging as one of the most talented of her cohort, and the recordings accorded her are well deserved. So, whilst I strongly recommend those performances by the Orchestra national du Capitole de Toulouse under Leo Hussain – they’re rather more incisive than Szeps-Znaider in Le Rêve – this twofer might serve to encourage you to explore further Bonis. The piece that gifts its name to the twofer is by Duparc. Aux étoiles was composed in 1874 but revised im 1910. It caused Duparc endless trouble but forms an effective five-minute interlude. I suppose its title (in English, To the Stars) proves evocative as a disc title though it’s hardly representative of the best of these symphonic poems.

Chausson’s Viviane is an Arthurian romance and was first performed in the same concert as Le Chasseur maudit was premiered – Franck was Chausson’s teacher and this is appropriate given that Chausson owed so much compositionally to Franck. Critics at the time admired its grace and I’d also mention its sense of orchestral colour, lyricism and the trumpet-led vigour of its declamatory writing. Another composer who has been increasingly visible lately, like Mel Bonis, is Charlotte Sohy. Her Danse mystique received a critical drubbing from Paul Bertrand writing in Le Ménestrel – he called it ‘irritatingly insignificant’ – but I found it effective in its aims, and the handling of contrasting themes is fine, as is the building of the crescendo. To hell with Bertrand.

If some of these symphonic poems contain heavy-duty Wagnerian or Franckian elements, you can rely on the Jota-sporting Chabrier to lighten the compositional load. You’ll have your favourite version of España, doubtless, but this one is suitably full of panache and no survey could be without it. Nor too Danse macabre. By contrast I’d not come across Victorin Joncières, whose La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) is a grave processional six minutes in length that was, appropriately, played at the composer’s funeral. Mention of processional brings us to the last piece, Rabaud’s fin de siècle La Procession nocturne, a quarter-of-an-hour of Tristanesque hothouse much praised at the time by Dukas, not least because Rabaud was only in his mid-20s when he wrote it. The overheated melodramatic grandeur of the music brings the programme to a suitable end.

As one has come to expect from this label, the booklet (French, English, German) is exhaustive in its profuse illustrative material and has full composer biographies, details of first performances and details of the works.

Jonathan Woolf

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CD 1
César Franck (1822-1890)
Le Chasseur maudit (1882)
Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892)
Ouverture d’Arteveld (1874 rev 1882)
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
D’un matin de printemps (1917-18)
Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931)
Istar (1896)
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
L’Apprenti Sorcier (1896-97)
Alfred Bruneau (1857-1934)
La Belle au bois dormant (1894)
Augusta Holmès (1847-1903)
La Nuit et l’Amour (1888)

CD 2
Mel Bonis (1858-1937)
Le Rêve de Cléopâtre (c.1909)
Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
Aux étoiles (1910)
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Viviane (1882-83)
Charlotte Sohy (1887-1955)
Danse mystique (1922)
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
España (1883)
Victorin Joncières (1839-1903)
La Toussaint (c.1896-1902)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Danse macabre (1874)
Henri Rabaud (1873-1949)
La Procession nocturne (1898)