Henry VIII of 1883 explores that monarch's (1491-1547) marital machinations involving his first wife Catherine and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-1536). The second act ends with a colorful "Fête populaire" ("People's Celebration") that's a sequence of seven dances, two of which are included here. "Danse de la gipsy" ("Gypsy Dance") [track-1] is a captivating Eastern-flavored oom-pah-pah waltz, while you'll find "La fête du houblon" ("The Hops Celebration") [track-2] rustically charming.
Set in Paris, Ascanio (1890, currently unavailable on disc) is about the great Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini's (1500-1571) stay at the court of François I (1494-1547) in 1539. To give it more of a period flavor, Saint-Saëns created a magnificent balletic divertissement in the third act calling for ornate sets, and dancers lavishly costumed as Greek as well as Roman deities. Lasting almost half an hour, the twelve dances making it up come next.
Some of them recall Lully (1632-1687), see the newsletter of 11July 2007) and Rameau (1683-1764) [tracks-3, 5 and 14], while others are of more romantic persuasion [tracks-7 and 12]. Highlights include a frenzied bacchanal [track-6], graceful waltz [track-8] worthy of Delibes (1836-1891), castanet-accented Neapolitan dance [track-10], and a thrilling ensemble number [track-13].
In 1879 Camille completed his fourth opera, Étienne Marcel (currently unavailable on disc), based on the life of that revolutionary figure (?-1358). The third act ballet consisting of six dances follows.
Highlights include the devil-may-care "Entrée des écoliers et des ribauds" ("Entry of the Students and Bawds") [track-15], as well as a delicate baroque-flavored pavane [track-17], airy waltz [track-18], and Tzigane-tinged "Entrée des bohémiens et bohémiennes" ("Entry of the Gypsy Men and Women") [track-19]. The flighty finale [track-20] may bring to mind Ponchielli's (1834-1886) "Dance of the Hours" from his opera La Gioconda (1876).
The disc concludes with excerpts from the three-act tragedy Les barbares (The Barbarians; 1900-01, currently unavailable on disc), which is about a conflict that took place between Gallo-Roman forces and German Barbarians back in 105 BC. At just over fifteen minutes the opening prelude [track-21] could almost be another Saint-Saëns tone poem. It begins ominously, gathering momentum in bellicose passages that give way to a lovely duet for violin and oboe. This is interrupted by a heroic episode with brass embellishments and horn calls, but the music suddenly turns melancholy and climactically funereal. Then after a brief pause the prelude ends triumphantly with brass flourishes and skittering strings.
Next we have the brief prelude to the final act [track-22], which is a blithe offering anticipating the release of the Gauls by their brutal German captors. This joyful turn of events is a cause for celebration, which in French opera seems to always take the form of a ballet.
Accordingly we get two jubilant dances, the first of which [track-23] is set to a catchy polonaise rhythm, and has some piquant brass and woodwind ornamentation. The second [track-24] is a farandole, with that repeated rhythm which makes the one in Bizet's (1838-1875) incidental music for L’Arlésienne (1872) so memorable. It's the perfect ending to this delectable disc of discovery!
We're lucky to have one of today's most promising young conductors, French-born Guillaume Tourniaire, leading the Australian Orchestra Victoria here. Together they perform this little known music with a sense of conviction and dynamic shading that bring out the best in these superbly crafted scores.
Made in Robert Blackwood Hall (RBH), which is reputedly one of Melbourne's finest venues, the CD and SACD stereo tracks are excellent, projecting a highly focused but lifelike soundstage in a nurturing acoustic. The orchestral timbre on these as well as the SACD multichannel track is crystal clear with the strings sounding even more natural on the SACD ones. Those with home theater systems will find the multichannel option gives them an orchestra-center seat in RBH.