I hadn’t heard of young French conductor Tourniaire before. He is currently musical director of...the Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne. He has a welcome talent for rare and previously unperformed music and has done several projects involving film scores, such as his reconstruction of Prokofiev’s music for Ivan the Terrible. These are world premiere recordings of tracks 3 thru 24 on the SACD, and his guest stint in Australia has produced this very fine album.
Saint-Saëns wrote 13 operas, but aside from Samson and Dalila they are mostly forgotten today. Tourniaire has arranged some of the orchestral music for the ballets in four them. Saint-Saëns was a versatile composer whose music from these operas perfectly captures the moods and feelings of the period. However, he was fairly conservative in style, staying away from Wagnerian or even Verdian influences, though always with a strong and cultivated French sound.
The opening two excerpts from Henry VIII comprise the shortest “suite” here: a gypsy dance and a slow melody nevertheless titled a Festival. Ascanio is set in Paris in the 16th century and concerns sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. This is the longest suite with 12 movements and colorful music in the baroque style, sometimes imitating Rameau. There are six selections in the Etienne Marcel suite, about a historic French figure who led an unsuccessful revolt against the Dauphin in 1358. The sections are mostly festive dances, often mixing period archaisms with more modern styles such as a waltz. The last opera ballet music, for Les Barbares, was designed for an opera performed in 1901 but set in 105 B.C., concerning a conflict between Gallo-Romans and barbarians. The Gauls are in danger of being massacred by brutal German barbarians. The barbarians depart at the end of the opera, thus making a celebration appropriate—naturally with ballet music from Saint-Saëns to fit the occasion.
It’s pleasant to hear such unfamiliar yet melodic and colorful ballet music. A few of the pieces might remind one of the composer’s popular Baccanale from Samson and Delilah, but mostly they are elegant little musical miniatures. The performance and surround recording are first-rate, as are all of Melba’s SACDs. The label is evidently well-supported by various Australian arts groups, and their packaging and notes are always of the highest quality.