There just aren't that many Bizet pieces out there for orchestra, so credit the always engaging Martin West for finding some. Jeux d'Enfants (orchestrated by Bizet, Kay, and Douglas) comes from a bunch of scores and three orchestrators, and the Variations has never been on compact disc before. How refreshing to avoid the usual suites that generally follow the symphony. Of course, that's some great music we're talking about, too, but this makes for such a more worthwhile program. Reference Recordings, don't ever change.
The symphony may surprise you. West treats it with a much more balletic touch than usual, leading to a more measured approach that allows each orchestral voice to sing. Rather than blasting through it like a novice romp – which is admittedly what the piece is – West and his players give the work a seriousness that I initially disliked but have come to appreciate on repeated hearings. Not that the work lacks for youthful energy, the scherzo is deliciously bouncy and the finale is as joyous as ever. Perhaps the best thing about this particular take is that West brings a welcome sense of contrast to each movement, and a great sense of conviction. It's not the only version of the symphony I want to own, but it's a formidable reading that elevates the work to something more than I've previously heard.
I've already mentioned how nice it is to have unique fillers on a Bizet disc, but I don't suppose it would matter if the performances weren't so excellent. Granted, Jeux d'Enfants is delightfully fluffy and not exactly a masterpiece, but it's great to have all of these charming miniatures in one place. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra lives up to its billing with the lovely playing that we've frankly come to expect, and you can practically see dancers as the music unfolds. The sound quality is beautiful as usual, and adds tremendous impact to already great playing and conducting. Finally, the Variations Chomatiques (orchestrated Weingartner) made it to a First Edition LP – Louisville recorded everything and anything obscure – and then promptly disappeared for 40 years. Full of the sense of dramatic theatre that defined Bizet's career, it opens with surprising menace. While I'm not sure it needs to last 14 minutes, I am very glad to have it. It's a virtuoso showcase arranged by an important figure in music, and thus is important to not only this project, but to our understanding of the composer generally. Outstanding, yet again.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman