BIZET: Carmen Suites 1 & 2; L’Arlesienne Suites 1 & 2 – London Sym. Orch./ Neville Marriner – Pentatone

Pentatone restores Sir Neville Marriner’s intensely effective 1978 Bizet suites. 

BIZET: Carmen Suites 1 & 2; L’Arlesienne Suites 1 & 2 – London Sym. Orch./ Neville Marriner – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 234, 65:10 (4.0 channels) [Distr. by Naxos] (7/8/16) ****:

Composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875), tragically and ironically, died suddenly in June 1875, only three months after the unsuccessful première of his opera Carmen at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, 3 March 1875. The opera’s première in Vienna in October that same year scored a global triumph, a Pyrrhic victory for a composer who thought this most revered opera a dismal failure. A fellow student of Bizet, Ernest Guirand, collated the suites from selected arias and scenes he had arranged for a version of the opera in Vienna. Neville Marriner, for this 1978 recording, includes the Seguidilla, which would otherwise consist of originally instrumental pieces. On this album they are combined with the Arlésienne suites No. 1 and 2, Bizet’s other hugely popular set of orchestral suites, which are taken (1879) from the incidental music he had composed for L’Arlésienne, a tragedy by French novelist Alphonse Daudet.

The suites from both scores, having become thoroughly familiar, it suffices to applaud what remastering does for the LSO’s trumpets, bassoons, and clarinets, as well the famed LSO string tremolo.  Flute and harp shine in the Intermezzo, which serves as an arioso prelude to Act III.  While the eminently pseudo-Iberian sensibility projects itself thoroughly, I always find orchestral transcriptions of operatic arias somewhat tedious – here the trumpet stands in for Escamillo, even after having served for Carmen’s Habanera – but the LSO woodwinds do play persuasively, I must admit. At the pot-boiler finale, the Danse boheme, the gypsy volume increases until the coup de grace from crashing drum and resounding cymbals.

Bizet himself utilized four pieces from his operatic music for Daudet’s tragedy L’Arlesienne and rescored them for an orchestral suite, enthusiastically received in concert in 1872. Bizet had appropriated several Provencal melodies into his score, one that introduces exotic sounds, such as from the saxophone. A charming Minuetto leads to the emotional core of the First Suite, the haunted Adagietto, meant as a tender moment of recollection of early love. An ostinato figure defines the concluding Carillon, featuring the winds’ playing in the manner of a glockenspiel, while a serene flute wafts above the strings.

For the Suite No. 2, only the tripartite E-flat Major Intermezzo belongs to Bizet. The remainder, arranged in 1879 by Guiraud, exists as a pastiche of Bizet tunes, such as the Minuet, which derives from Bizet’s opera La jolie fille de Perth.  The opening, lugubrious Pastorale seems “authentic” enough, in its Provencal guise. The last movement, Farandole, gives us a splashy, contrapuntal combination taken from the original incidental music superimposed to a raucous coda. All very brilliantly captured sonically by Pentatone – but I wish someone would do the same for Sir Thomas Beecham’s EMI recordings of the same scores. [Amazon does carry this SACD but they have identified it as just a plain CD…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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