December 24, 2008


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker. San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan; Hélène Devilleneuve, oboe; Jérôme Voisin, clarinet; Antoine Dreyfuss, horn; Jean-François Duquesnoy, bassoon. Naïve. $16.99.

Fauré: Requiem. Cantique de Jean Racine. Sandrine Piau, soprano; Stéphane Degout, baritone; Accentus and members of L’Orchestre National de France conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Naïve. $16.99.

Messiaen: Fête des Belles Eaux for Sextet of Ondes Martenot; Feuillets Inédits for Piano and Ondes Martenot; Ravel: String Quartet, 1st movement, arranged for four Ondes Martenot. Ensemble d’Ondes de Montréal (Marie Bernard, Suzanne Binet-Audet, Geneviève Grenier and Estelle Lemire) with Louise Larose and Jean Laurendeau; Louise Bessette, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Volume 4. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

     Anniversaries can provide a welcome opportunity, or maybe just an excuse, to look at familiar works in a different way. The San Francisco Ballet is now in its 75th season, and the inventiveness of which it is capable comes through particularly clearly in its staging of Tchaikovsky’s venerable Nutcracker. Helgi Tomasson’s choreography gets only part of the credit here, for it is graceful and often clever but not in itself the most distinguished element of the production. The scenic design by Michael Yeargan also deserves a great deal of praise: the ballet is set in San Francisco itself in the year 1915, and this works quite well in light of the timeless nature of the story, so much of which occurs in fairyland rather than in a bourgeois household (the original tale, by E.T.A. Hoffmann, is altogether darker than the ballet, but Tchaikovsky knew only an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père). The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are top-notch, notably the fierce-looking Mouse King – who has only a single head, but a very scary one – and the wonderful Madame du Cirque. And who might that be, you may wonder? She is an indication of the clever rethinking of this production, being a substitute for Mother Ginger in Act Two. And before you comment that the circus is not a “sweet” (since the act is in the Land of Sweets) – well, neither are the mirlitons (reed flutes) or flowers, and where would the act be without them? Madame du Cirque is voluminously gowned in a red and white circus tent from which she eventually coaxes forth a dancing bear – an unusual and effective touch. There are many such here, including the giant mousetrap that Clara (Elizabeth Powell) uses instead of a shoe to rescue the Nutcracker Prince in the first act. The dancing is uniformly at a very high level, and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Damian Smith) is particularly effective at tying the disjointed story together. The music is well played throughout, and the staging – first used in 2004 – makes this Americanized Nutcracker a highly memorable delight.

     There is a more recent anniversary being celebrated by the Naïve label – its 10th. For a decade, this French producer of CDs has stuck to its mission of showcasing music by French composers, on the one hand, and performances by French artists of non-French music, on the other. Most Naïve CDs are of very high quality, and their design and packaging are unique. But they are not necessarily the best versions of the music they offer. François-Frédéric Guy’s playing in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is a little too tentative in the first two movements, and Philippe Jordan’s conducting seems more to follow Guy’s lead than to move in partnership. Guy and Jordan take some chances with the music in terms of tempo and rubato, and these work well at times – but less well at others. And the pairing of the concerto with the earlier quintet for piano and winds is a chance itself – and a trifle odd. The quintet is well played, but its juxtaposition with the concerto seems arbitrary. This CD gets a (+++) rating.

     The Naïve recording of Fauré’s Requiem gets (++++), though, despite its unusual brevity – the disc runs just 41 minutes, including the infrequently heard Cantique de Jean Racine. But the performance is exemplary, with both soloists and the 32-voice chorus called Accentus fully exploring the sublime beauty of this Requiem – heard here in the original 1893 version, which was rediscovered only in 1980. Fauré’s music requires a touch both light and sensitive, and that is exactly what it gets here.

     No touch at all is required for the strange electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928 and produced until 1988. Olivier Messiaen – the100th anniversary of whose birth is now being celebrated – was a great champion of this instrument, which is played by sliding a metal ring in front of a keyboard without touching the keys (although players can depress them if they prefer). Messiaen’s first work for ondes Martenot was Fête des Belles Eaux (1937), in which the instrument’s strange sounds and unbroken glissandi create an otherworldly impression through eight movements. ATMA’s CD of the work, which has never been recorded before, is simply splendid, as is the interplay of piano and ondes Martenot in another first-ever recording: Feuillets Inédits – with the piano sounding like a bit of a sonic interloper once the ear is well attuned to the electronic instrument. In some ways, the most interesting aural experience on this (++++) CD is the arrangement for four ondes Martenot of the first movement of Ravel’s String Quartet. The quartet dates to 1903, before the ondes Martenot was invented, but the sonorities of Ravel’s strings translate surprisingly well to the electronic quivering of four ondes Martenot. This arrangement is a curiosity, of course, but it is a curiously involving one that reveals different beauties in Ravel’s writing from those that appear in the original string quartet.

     Of course, it is not necessary to be celebrating Naïve’s 10th anniversary or Messiaen’s 100th in order to produce French music of high quality and exceptional interest. The final volume in Chandos’ four-CD set of Debussy’s piano works needs no reason for being other than Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s wonderful way with some of the composer’s most difficult pieces. This volume includes the first and second books of Images and the first and second books of Études, plus Étude retrouvée as realized by Roy Howat. Bavouzet, whose third volume was devoted to short and generally unexceptional pieces, here handles some of Debussy’s most complex works with rare insight and outstanding technique. The Images (1901-5 and 1907) are reflections of Debussy’s interest in art and in Baudelaire; in playing them, Bavouzet expertly conveys the composer’s sensitivity. And the Études (1915) are simultaneously poetic and contrapuntal, filled with technical difficulties that seem to trouble Bavouzet not at all as he thoroughly plumbs Debussy’s exploration of the piano’s harmonic and textural possibilities. This is a (++++) conclusion to Bavouzet’s journey through the very personal world of Debussy’s piano music.

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