BIZET: Symphony in C; Jeux D’Enfants; Variations chromatiques – San Francisco Ballet Orch./ Martin West – Reference Recordings

by | Aug 19, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

GEORGES BIZET: Symphony in C (1855); Jeux D’Enfants, Op. 22 (1871); Variations chromatiques (1868) – San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/ Martin West – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-131, 75:27 [9/10/13] [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

These three works of Bizet are all well-performed, and two of them are completely unique. The recording was made at Skywalker Sound with its ultra-low noise level, and the engineer was the label’s Grammy-winning engineer Keith O. Johnson. This is very first recording of Bizet’s Jeux D’Enfants which brings us all dozen of the pieces in the original piano-four-hands collection, transcribed for playing by a full orchestra. Bizet himself only orchestrated five of them, and the rest were done more recently by Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas, so all 12 can be presented here in symphonic garb.

The Variations chromatiques here receives its CD premiere. It was inspired by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in c, and is a dramatic set of 14 variations for piano, with the theme mostly unaltered thru all of them. It is considered the composer’s most significant piano work. Felix Weingartner orchestrated the piano music in 1933, but it only had one previous recording by the Louisville Orchestra in 1973.

My favorite recording of the optimistic and brilliant Bizet Symphony in C (written then he was only 17!) has for years been the one Bernard Haitink recorded for Philips with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I had it on vinyl and naturally did a comparison with the new Reference Recordings HDCD (properly decoded on my Oppo deck). They were very close in both the excellent performances and the sonics. There was a slight advantage in the size of the orchestra in favor of the Concertgebouw, but the main difference was the greater sense of the famed Concertgebouw acoustics vs. the drier sound of the Skywalker studios. Reference Recordings will undoubtedly release this recording later as one of their hi-res 176.4K/24 HRX releases, and then there may be a fairer comparison between the two recordings.

Another advantage in favor of the CD version, besides the Variations chromatiques, is that one gets all dozen of the orchestrated short movements of the Jeux D’Enfants, whereas on the Philips vinyl and all other CDs there are only the five which Bizet himself orchestrated.

—John Sunier

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