Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) belongs to what might be termed the second stream of 20th-century French composers after the towering masters Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen, a stream which includes (but not only) Satie, Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud and Françaix, the unifying thread of which group in current orchestral programmes means that their works are heard far less often than their genuine qualities demand. Among those qualities are the inherently civilised nature of their music and lack of straining after effect, alongside a desire to explore the lighter aspects of life (though not always, of course), expressed through a collective command of form and orchestration, of musical Impressionism and of structure, which hardly ever outstays its welcome.
Under the fifty-year stewardship of Ernest Ansermet, the Geneva-based Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (which he had founded in 1918) demonstrated its collective mastery of the 20th-century French School through a long and fondly-remembered series of excellent Decca recordings. As the city of Geneva is surrounded on three sides by France, the association is a natural one, and in terms of sympathy with its neighbours the Suisse Romande Orchestra has a high reputation, one reinforced by this superb Chandos release.
Despite the infrequency with which Ibert’s music is encountered in the concert hall, record collectors of a certain age will doubtless know his wonderful Escales (Ports of Call) and the delightful Divertissement – and I am always on the look-out for new recordings of his Flute Concerto and the Concertino da Camera for saxophone and chamber orchestra. Escales and the Divertimento are included here, as well as a bigger group of pieces which show Ibert’s art in a somewhat broader light – though the inherently sophisticated nature of his music remains constant.
The sound quality of this Chandos release is truly outstanding in every regard: balance, depth and detail are state-of-the-art, enabling us to appreciate the music and Neeme Järvi’s interpretations. He directs very acceptable accounts of most of these scores. Escales, which opens the disc, comes across with its qualities here brilliantly displayed (what a fine work this is!), and the contrasting Divertissement is equally well played (including an excellent pianist). Indeed, some may feel that the Divertissement is too well-played, for the innate sense of fun the music contains is almost a little poker-faced here.
The rest of the programme receives distinguished accounts, but neither Järvi nor the SRO can dispel the surprisingly empty bombast of the final pages of the Ouverture de fête – written for the Japanese 2,600-year Dynasty in 1940, and, like Strauss’s similarly-commissioned Opus 84, overloaded with uncharacteristic rhodomontade.
The shorter Hommage à Mozart and Bacchanale both date from 1956 (the latter a BBC commission to mark the Third Programme’s tenth anniversary) and more suitably fit with Ibert’s established manner, exemplified further in the attractive Paris (1930), described by the composer (surely tongue-in-cheek) as a ‘symphonic suite’ – which, being a six-movement work lasting a little over thirteen minutes, could hardly be described as ‘symphonic’ in the customary sense.
If on occasion Järvi fails to deliver the last degree of fastidiousness (he is at his best in the Sarabande pour Dulcinée – from the 1933 Don Quichotte film), this should not be considered a reason not to obtain this generously-filled, splendidly played and magnificently recorded issue: throughout (with the possible exception of Ouverture de fête) the music is well worth having in one’s collection, and enhances the listener’s experience of this exceptionally gifted and most admirable composer. The detailed and informative booklet notes by Roger Nichols are a model of what such accompanying writing should be.