Also, Jeux d’enfants; Variations chromatiques. Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Reference Recordings RR-131.
The folks at Reference Recordings don't issue a whole lot of discs in any given year, sometimes only one or two, but they are always so good, musically and sonically, it makes every new release a special occasion. Thus, it is a delight to welcome this latest RR entry into the catalogue, the music of French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875), performed by Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.
The first and most important item on the program is the one that starts us off, the Symphony in C, which Bizet composed as a student exercise at the age of seventeen. It's a remarkable work for any age, but doubly so given the composer's youth. And it's held up remarkably well, too, considering that Bizet thought so little of it that he filed it away and forgot it. Undiscovered in the Paris Conservatoire archives for some eighty years, it finally got its première in 1935. In terms of recordings of it, Sir Thomas Beecham probably set the benchmark with his 1959 EMI account, a performance I had in mind when listening to this new one from Maestro West.
I worried unnecessarily that West might not provide the same charm, the same light, winsome delight that Beecham had. I shouldn't have worried. West, after all, has been conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra since 2005 and before that was the conductor of the English National Ballet and the Cambridge Philharmonic. He brings the light, delicate touch of the ballet conductor with him, always exercising a spring in his step, a lilt to the beat, a bounce to the melody. And what enchanting melodies they are; it seems that Bizet from his earliest attempts at musical composition was able to offer a seemingly never-ending flow of brilliant ideas. His themes and West's direction give us a joyous, spontaneous, sometimes melancholy, always sweetly flowing and pleasurable rendition of the Symphony in C.
Following the Symphony, we hear Jeux d'enfants (Children's Games), which Bizet originally wrote in 1872 as a four-hands piano suite of twelve numbers. He later orchestrated five of them, the others subsequently orchestrated for the ballet version that debuted in 1932. That's what we get here, the first recording of all twelve items, including those orchestrated by Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas. (Previous recordings included only the Petite Suite, the five items Bizet himself orchestrated.)
Again, West and his players supply the kind of lithe, animated interpretation we found in the Symphony. The different sections of the score alternate between graceful, athletic numbers and slow, lyrical ones, nicely caught by the conductor and his forces. This is ballet interpretation of the first order, light and airy, colorful and impassioned.
The final selection on the disc is Variations chromatiques, which Bizet wrote for piano in 1868. It remained forgotten until 1933 when pianist, composer, and conductor Felix Weingartner orchestrated it. Quite unlike the youthful, energetic, high-spirited Symphony and Jeux, the Variations are dark and somewhat forbidding. Nevertheless, West infuses them with a dancer's agility and a suitably atmospheric mood.
The Reference Recordings team of producers Victor and Marina Ledin, executive producer Marcia Martin, and recording engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music in 24-bit HDCD at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California in April 2012. Skywalker has become a well-known recording venue, particularly for film music with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra in movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. How well the main sound studio suits an orchestra for audiophile purposes, however, was a question that interested me. Certainly, the studio seemed perfect for the Philharmonia Baroque in their Four Seasons recording, but that was a very small ensemble. Would a full orchestra sound as good done at Skywalker when the engineers weren’t using the venue to make a flat, forward-sounding film track meant to impress audiences when played back in a huge movie theater? The answer is yes. Reference Recordings did another fine job. Indeed, it’s among their more-transparent sounding discs, while retaining their patented dynamic range, sonic impact, ambience, and air.
As with all of their products, RR's sonics are big and bold, with an impressive power and authority. Yet the sound accomplishes this feat without being muddy, cloudy, or overly resonant. The midrange transparency remains intact while the orchestra blooms fully in all directions. We get a quick, strong transient response; a wide frequency range; a good sense of orchestral depth and room ambience; and a strong, often visceral force behind the notes. It makes for a remarkably realistic presentation, something we have come to know and love from Reference Recordings.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: