Massenet: Ballet Music (CD review)

Ballet music from Bacchus, Herodiade, Thais, and Le Cid. Patrick Gallois, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573123.

You can’t say you don’t get your money’s worth with this disc. It doesn’t contain just two or three ballet suites from Massenet operas but four. The material totals about seventy-eight minutes of music, close to the limit of a standard CD.

It’s interesting, too, 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. That is the case with French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), who wrote a slew of operas popular in his day, 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. These purely orchestral works continue to fascinate listeners, as demonstrated here by Maestro Patrick Gallois and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.

First up on the program is a suite of ten ballet items from Bacchus, which the composer premiered in Paris in 1909. The music contains romance and adventure in abundance, and Maestro Gallois very competently conjures up all the right ingredients. He is especially persuasive in the love interludes, the sometimes solemn, sometimes playful Initiation scenes, and the final Bacchanale, the latter particularly energetic.

Next is a suite of five ballet selections from Herodiade, which opened in 1881, telling the story of King Herod, his brother's widow, Salome, and John the Baptist. What we get in the suite are exotic dances by girls from Egypt, Babylon, Gaul, and Phoenicia, followed by a melodramatic finale. Gallois keeps it flowing charmingly, even though the music is rather lightweight in nature. Gallois plays up the lush Romanticism of the score and gives us a thrilling conclusion.

After that is a suite of ten ballet numbers from Thais, first performed in 1884, numbers that Massenet added later. The most-famous tune in the opera, of course, is the Act II intermezzo, the Meditation, which, unfortunately, is not a part of the ballet music. The actual ballet selections are some fairly somber pieces, although it offers more variety than the Herodiade ballet selections, Gallois pointing up both the lyricism and the agitation of the score in equal measure. There is remarkable zip and bounce to the conductor's style, making the music as comfortable in listening to it as it is probably to watch on stage.

The final 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, the Spanish soldier and hero of the wars against the Moors. The ballet has become the most popular part of the music. If I think this ballet suite is the best thing on the disc, it's probably because I've always thought it was some the most underrated music in the classical field. Massenet captures the spirit of Spain as well as the spirit of the score's heroics, and Gallois communicates it as well as anybody. Well, almost anybody. I still prefer Louis Fremaux's performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier), but that's a truly audiophile recording and  neither here nor there. Gallois has the measure of the music and gives us a nicely drawn, deliciously flavorful portrait of the story. You'll find all the color, all the picturesque beauty, and most of the exuberance these ballet numbers have to offer, and Gallois does it with subtlety, elegance, and grace. It's a heady combination.

Producer, engineer, and editor Sean Lewis made the recording at L’Auditori, Pau Casals Hall, Barcelona, Spain in October 2012. So, how did Mr. Lewis do as practically a one-man show? Pretty well, actually. Too often in the past Naxos engineers have provided perfectly acceptable if perfectly bland audio reproduction, usually big and warm and soft. But Lewis gives us a natural, well-defined sound, with plenty of orchestral depth, moderate bass and dynamics, and sparkling highs. It's a welcome change from Naxos's more-ordinary sounding discs and makes for a pleasantly realistic audio experience.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa