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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa