BIZET: Symphony in C Major; Jeux d’enfants, Op. 22; Roma–Suite for Orchestra, No. 3 -Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Jarvi – Virgin Classics 62861304, 75:54 ****:
With the partnership of Radio Classique, these live inscriptions of Bizet staples by Paavo Jarvi took place at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, 18-19 November 2009 (Symphony and Petite Suite d’Orchestre) and 20-21 November 2009 (Roma). The three works herein performed constitute Bizet’s repute as a composer of orchestral works, all else consigned to his opera oeuvre, barring the incidental music–the first suite–for L’Arlesienne.
The C Major Symphony we recall is the product of a teenager (1855) under the spell of Charles Gounod and the legacy of Franz Joseph Haydn. The lighthearted and facile nature of the writing remains predominantly Classical; and ever since Beecham’s historic inscription, a model for conductors of quicksilver ensembles. Both the first and second movements allow the principal oboe to strut its melodic capabilities in a form agreeable to the Massenet legacy of French instrumental ariosi. The sailing quality of the line in the Adagio could be likened to the melody in Gounod’s Judex–Mors et Vita, which had a fine inscription from Nicolai Malko two generations ago. Jarvi keeps the swaggering fugato on light feet, a delicious moment of youthful counterpoint. A delicious Scherzo follows, the string trills clean and lucid, the tympani part alternating between D and A in the outer parts, while the rustic trio gravitates to C and G. The Allegro vivace finale proceeds as a tour de force for the orchestra, plastic and lithe, the spirits jubilant and a mite impish in the manner of a Gallic Mendelssohn. A pity we have no recording by Felix Weingartner, who introduced the work in 1935. Paavo Jarvi nonetheless effects a suavely wrought Symphony, devilishly infectious at each turn.
The Petite Suite d’Orchestre, Jeux d’enfants (1871), derives from a set of twelve piano pieces conceived along the lines of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Bizet selected five pieces for orchestration, and they emanate a spirit of youth and alert detail in their colors. The opening Marche (Trompette et Tambour) has the same mock militancy that Tchaikovsky ushers in with the Nutcracker. We can hear allusions to Carmen and to another opera, Ivan IV. The Berceuse rocks and lulls us in charming dialogues among violins, clarinet, flute, and oboe, the dark colorations well indicative of later music by Faure. The Impromptu whirls in an aerial space similar to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Pipes.
Duo floats operatically, the melody worthy of Massenet. Finally, a joyful Galop (Le Bal) invites us to a round dance, an invocation I first heard years ago on “Children’s Theater” hosted by the late Ray Forrest, a man well ahead of his time for educational media. Next to my old classic performance by Igor Markevitch (on American Decca), this performance by Jarvi sets a new standard.
The so-called Roma “Symphony” in C Major (1860-1871) qualifies neither as a symphony nor a symphonic suite as such, but a kind of musical picture of four cities in Italy Bizet visited while residing at the Villa Medici for his Prix de Rome. The first movement remains the most ambitious, the evocation of Rome moving from an Andante tranquillo to Allegro agitato and a loose sonata-form structure. The grave sections of the score–a chorale motif or a somber pastoral–remind us of Mendelssohn, especially in the wind and French horn parts. The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) calls forth Florence, opening with a sunny fugue in bouncing, songful figures. The Andante molto invokes Venice, whose lulling waters hint at dark-hued gondolas and romantic trysts. The delicacy of the scoring might have provided Prokofiev a few clues for his Romeo and Juliet ballet. The final movement applies Neapolitan harmonies and a sense of the saltarello for Naples, and this movement caught the fond attentions of Sir Thomas Beecham. The lure of the Roman Carnival captivates us here as it does when Berlioz or Mendelssohn try their respective hands to the task. Light, frothy, and charming, the suite finds only lovely sympathies in Jarvi’s measured inscription.