Melba Recordings

"... a label of fragrant distinction"

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Presto Classical (UK)
Chris O'Reilly

French maestro Guillaume Tourniaire, rapidly establishing himself as one of the most exciting and satisfying musical voices among the new generation of conductors, continues his series of recordings on Melba with ballet music from Saint-Saëns’ neglected operas, imbuing this lost music with great energy, love and life-force. The music is played by Orchestra Victoria.

This superbly recorded SACD offers a chance to discover many of Saint-Saëns’ exquisitely orchestrated musical jewels; ballet divertissements – from Henry VIII , Ascanio, Etienne Marcel and Les Barbares – that embody the essence of good taste and refinement beloved of belle époque France. Saint-Saëns’ passion for historic subjects led him to rework archaic music into masterful pastiches imbuing the imagined past of his operas with scenes of dramatic splendour. The resultant pieces are melodic masterpieces in miniature.

Elan opens with two dances from Henry VIII, an exotic Gypsy dance and Fête de Hublon, a euphoric celebration of the end of hop picking season. The music from Ascanio, in the form of an elaborate entertainment for the kings of Spain and France, is set in the gardens of François I’s palace of Fontainebleau. Reynaldo Hahn described this ballet sequence as a “supreme triumph of taste and elegance—the entire Renaissance in a few pages”.

The opera Etienne Marcel’s revolutionary theme, with the patriotic French straining against the shackles of tyranny, is given counterpoint in Saint-Saëns’ suave ballet music. Les Barbares was written for outdoor performance at the magnificent Roman amphitheatre in Orange. Its bloodthirsty tale of conquest, sacrifice and revenge is reflected in the darkest and most brooding music on this CD. Its climax in the triumphant Air de Ballet and Farandole, though, is bursting with the same Dionisian athleticism greatly admired in Saint-Saëns’ famous Baccanale from Samson and Delilah.