It’s interesting (well, to me) that some composers can write a ton of music and years later people remember them for only a handful of things, if they remember them at all. Such is the case with French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), who wrote a slew of popular operas, most of them soon going out of style. Today, we still hear the occasional performance of Werther, Thais, or Manon, and that’s about it. Except for the ballet suites from several of his operas, which we have on the present disc. They continue to entertain in purely orchestral form, as demonstrated here by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
The first selection is a suite of seven ballet selections from the opera Le Cid, which Massenet premiered in 1885. He based the story on the legendary “El Cid Campeador” (Rodrigo D#az de Bivar), c.1040–99, Spanish soldier and hero of the wars against the Moors. The ballet has become the most popular part of the music.
Anyway, Marriner has always been an elegant conductors and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields a refined of orchestra; it’s no accident that their performance of the Le Cid music demonstrates these qualities clearly, from the bracing opening number, Castillane, to the more leisurely Andalouse to the stately Aragonaise to the lovely Madrilene. Nothing seems to ruffle Marriner’s calm, dignified approach to a score that can sometimes get a tad raucous in its exuberance.
Massenet premiered Cendrillon (Cinderella) in 1899, and it contains all of the magic of the fairy tale. Moreover, under Marriner it delivers that magic fluently, graciously, and delightfully.
With Thais, first performed in 1884, Massenet added the ballet numbers later. The big tune we usually hear nowadays, of course, is the Act II entr’acte, the “Meditation,” which, unfortunately, is not a part of the ballet music. Instead, we get some fairly somber pieces that Marriner nevertheless manages to bring to life with a generous enthusiasm and spirit. Although neither the Cendrillon nor Thais ballet sequence is as creative, colorful, or characterful as that of Le Cid, they make splendid couplings.
The value of the album is having all three of Massenet’s ballet suites together in one place, performed and recorded extraordinarily well. It’s almost a no-brainer.
Marriner and the ASMF originally recorded the music for the Capriccio label at the Church of St. Jude on the Hill, London, in 1994, and the folks at Brilliant Classics made their own transfer in 2012. The sound is excellent, and I have no hesitation recommending it. The only “however” I would add is that in the early Seventies Louis Fremaux recorded the Le Cid ballet music with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI with sound of demonstration quality. More important, one can still find it on a budget-priced EMI as well as a now-deleted but apparently still available American Klavier disc. My own copy is virtually impossible to find anymore, being a gold disc that Klavier offered for only a short time. While the Brilliant Classics sound is, as I say, excellent, switching to the gold Klavier moves us into an entirely different sound world altogether, with greater impact, deeper bass, and even more pronounced midrange clarity.
But I’m not here to sell you on an unavailable audiophile disc; I’m here to describe the Marriner album, which is still superior to most of what gets produced anymore. The Brilliant Classics disc displays a modest stereo spread and a realistic sense of orchestral depth, with a wide dynamic range, good bass and treble extension, plenty of air around the instruments, reasonably good transparency, and a soft, warm hall ambience. It should not disappoint most listeners.