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Georges Bizet
Symphony in C; Jeux d'enfants, Op. 22 (with orchestrations by Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas)
Variations Chromatiques (orchestrated by Felix Weingartner)
Martin West conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

  Bizet familiar, augmented, and just plain odd: the ubiquitous Symphony in C, the complete Jeux d'enfants with orchestrations by the American Hershey Kay and the Australian Roy Douglas, and Felix Weingartner's orchestration of Bizet's most ambitious piano composition. Are you ready to rumble?

As hard as it might be to believe, the ever-popular Symphony in C was a student composition that the 17-year-old Bizet shelved as a failure and soon forgot about. The symphony had to wait 80 years for conductor Felix Weringartner to discover it, but since then it has not wanted for exposure. Along with Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and Franck's Symphony in D minor, it's probably the most often performed and recorded symphonic work in the entire French repertory. And that means there's lots of competition for this new version by Martin West. In his even-tempered first movement, I missed the life-affirming swagger of Charles Munch, the ťlan of Jean Martinon, the athleticism of Leonard Bernstein, the puckish charm of Thomas Beecham. Taken at slower than usual tempos, the adagio is more successful: luminous and graceful with delicate solo work from the winds. Though also underpowered, the scherzo and finale at least have well-sprung rhythms: it's easy to understand why choreographers like Georges Balanchine have been so attracted to this music.

The Jeux d'enfants began its life as a suite for piano, four hands. Later Bizet orchestrated five of its twelve sections, and it's in that arrangement that the work has been performed and recorded by many conductors. In this new recording, those five sections have been complemented by the Kay and Douglas orchestrations to give us a kind of hybrid version of the complete work that's often performed as a full ballet. Of course, both Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas worked as arrangers for dance companies, and their contributions here are showy, witty, and very danceable. Bizet might well have considered the Variations Chromatiques his most fully realized composition for piano, but in Weingartner's orchestration, it's a bombastic piece that seems overlong at fourteen minutes. But Bizet collectors please take note: this marks its first (and probably its last) appearance on CD.

No company produces more realistic orchestral sound than Reference Recordings. The demonstration-quality sound here is typical: the soundstage is wide and deep; the upper register finely detailed, but warm and glowing; the bass rich and vivid. As most audiophiles already know, there's nothing clinical or gimmicky about Reference recordings; the orchestra sounds completely natural. Close your eyes, and you're front row center.

So this is pretty much a mixed bag, if ever there was one. If your interest here is the Symphony, I'd look elsewhere. But ballet lovers should feel very much at home in this repertory. And I bet the sensational sound will only add to their pleasure.

 

 

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