Michael Quinn
The Classical Review (US)
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The Australian label Melba Recordings has been proving itself an articulate and accomplished champion of neglected French music in recent years. Its latest release follows acclaimed first recordings of chamber music by Jongen and Koechlin, orchestral works by Vierne and Chausson, and a headline-grabbing coupling of the orchestral version of Saint-Saëns’ Nuit Persane with his one-act Trojan War opera, Hélène.

Elan reunites Guillaume Tourniaire – the young French conductor ushered into the international limelight by previous Melba recordings – with Australia’s own Orchestra Victoria for their second foray into the largely forgotten operas of Saint-Saëns. Here, they light upon the ballet music from four very different works to altogether surprising and impressive effect, prompting one to wonder why this supremely dramatic, emotional, colourful, evocative, and often exciting music has been ignored for so long.

That it also begs the question as to why European companies should have left it to an Australian label to stand up and make a claim for this music, points, if nothing else, to how the classical recording industry has changed over the past decade and, more so, to the courage and imagination of the Melbourne-based Melba project in pitching itself into the very centre of both the repertoire and the recording industry’s historic heartland. Plaudits, too, in this increasingly cash-strapped era, to the Australian government for providing funding for an enterprise with clear international ambitions that, on past and present evidence, has the chops to realise whatever it sets out to do.

In his excellent booklet note, Hugh Macdonald alludes to the riches to be discovered here when he comments, “To assemble a selection of orchestral music from the unfamiliar operas [of Saint-Saëns] is to confront a treasure-trove of colorful and expressive music reflecting the tastes and fashions of belle époque France.” Evidence of such is immediately apparent in the two excerpts from Henry VIII (1893) – the exotic, fever-tinged ‘Danse de la Gipsy,’ and the sweetly swaying and swooning ‘La Fête du Houblon’ – that seem like veritable gifts
to an orchestra and conductor delightfully alert and alive to their quixotic attractions.

No less vital are the six pieces from Etienne Marcel, the earliest work here. Dating from 1879, it is a decorous and pretty paean to its eponymous 14th-century revolutionary hero, its composition prompted by the re-building of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris following its destruction by the Commune eight years earlier. It proves to be a delectable mix of the old (the elegantly stately ‘Pavanne’), the new (the decidedly contemporary ‘Valse’), and the exotic (the excitable ‘Entrée des Bohémiens et des Bohémiennes’), and is served up with relish and grace by Tourniaire and his OV players with a feeling and fondness for the music that is altogether persuasive.

Until now, the ballet sequence from Ascanio – a masterpiece whose rediscovery is surely long overdue – had largely been known through the tantalizing description of it by Saint-Saëns’ late contemporary Reynaldo Hahn as “a supreme triumph of taste and elegance – the entire Renaissance in a few pages.” It’s hard to imagine better, more attuned advocates than the Orchestra Victoria – who play it to the manner born under Tourniaire’s nuanced baton.

Set in Paris in 1539, it concerns itself with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s visit to the court of François I, and proves to be a work of both delicate and effervescent proportions, brimming over with music of melodic sweep and dramatic thrust. It has some curiosity value, too, being an elaborate – and deftly executed – pastiche (Saint-Saëns paying obvious homage to Rameau in its faux-baroque textures and detailing) grafted onto the grand opera form popular in France at the time of its premiere in 1890.

Performances from orchestra and conductor rise superbly time and again to the contrasting demands of the music, balancing its insistence on baroque stylization with the bold, broad, decidedly modern-sounding symphonic gestures required by its epic narrative scale. Marked by a constant but consummate pulling of stage focus, the ballet music stands on its own merits; delightfully quirky in places (sprightly Neapolitan rhythms apostrophized by castanets in the ‘Ensemble’ of assorted Gods, Muses, nymphs and Bacchae), spellbindingly beautiful in others (the enchanting dialogue between solo flute and cello in ‘Variation de l’Amour’), and able to be dreamily jaunty (‘Final’) and to bristle with due mock-baroque ceremonial (‘Apothéose’) in beautifully precise measure.

Les Barbares offers vivid contrast to the ebullience of Ascanio. Completed in 1901, it is a much more sober, even somber, affair, a facet Tosca author Victorien Sardou’s libretto evocatively underlines. Set in the Second century BCE, and depicting the conflict between the Barbarians of the title and their Gallo-Roman foes, the dark-hued ballet music is characterized by a romantic ardor that veers between plangent lamenting, stirring calls to arms, and excited exuberance with such utter conviction that it is impossible to resist.

Melba’s usual exemplary sound perfectly frames performances of impressive feeling and impeccable fluidity from a Tourniare/Orchestra Victoria partnership that is fast becoming a powerhouse combination.

Simply put, this is another remarkable find from an increasingly essential label. A strong contender for my disc of the year.