Please see review text for composers and repertoire
Various artists

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Louis Frémaux

Recorded between June 1970 and December 1977 in various locations
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
0190295886738 (12 CDs)
Duration: 14 hours 12 minutes
Reviewed: October 2017

The death in March of Louis Frémaux (1921-2017) brought into new focus his contribution to music-making in Birmingham. During 1969 to 1978 he transformed a capable ensemble into one of the finest in the UK, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra also benefitting from EMI opting to record more extensively with Britain’s regional orchestras. The result was a total of nineteen LPs which underline Frémaux’s prowess in French and British music (regrettably, he recorded none of the Austro-German music which was no less a part of his repertoire). Most have been previously re-released by EMI in the late-1980s and early-1990s (mainly on the mid-price Studio and British Composers labels), but Warner Classics has recently collated all these into a single box as part of its Icon series, all the recordings having been freshly re-mastered for this reissue, though the various re-couplings make it hard to access the original releases in chronological order.

The recorded CBSO/Frémaux association began in June 1970 accompanying tenor David Hughes (1925-72). A leading MOR singer who had moved successfully to opera, Hughes finds eloquence and not a little rhetoric in staples from Pagliacci (‘On with the motley’), La bohème (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’), Carmen, Tosca (‘When the stars were brightly shining’) and Turandot (‘None shall sleep); overkill less a result of ‘can belto’ as of the mercilessly up-front Studio Two sound. Lehár dominates the operetta arias, and also represented are The Gondoliers and A Night in Venice. Hughes, singing in English, is in his element, abetted by the stylish and attentive playing.

April 1971 saw an LP of Massenet. The Ballet Music from Le Cid had largely fallen out of the repertoire but the CBSO despatches it with relish, not least the lively ‘Madrilène’ (nimble playing from flautist Anthony Moroney and Elizabeth Robinson on cor anglais) and the dashing ‘Navarraise’. Scènes pittoresques is Massenet’s Fourth Orchestral Suite, with Frémaux as alive to the sombre ‘Angélus’ as to the exuberant ‘Fête bohème’, then Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge (Hilary Robinson the lissom cellist) makes for a restful though not unduly cloying encore.

Saint-Saëns was to prove central to Frémaux’s recorded activities. In June 1971, Le Carnaval des animaux was by no means as ubiquitous as today – enabling this account to tease out the wit and subtlety of these inventive evocations (not all of them parodies). John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas are capable pianists, with pert contributions from Moroney in ‘Volière’ and Robinson in ‘Le Cygne’. After the shenanigans of this “Grand Zoological Fantasy”, the faded charms of Fauré’s once-popular Ballade sound a note of wistfulness and grace, as well as providing an outlet for the more intimate side of Ogdon’s pianism. His customary dynamism reasserts itself in the ‘Scherzo’ from Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique No.4 – dashing and impetuous, while never a moment too long.

On to April 1972 and a collection of Offenbach Overtures which can rank with the finest, in particular the full-length version of Orphée aux enfers has an almost symphonic integration, though not at the expense of its uproarious ‘Can-Can’, while those to La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Belle Hélène are more than equal to anything by Suppé. Nor does Frémaux underplay the rather deadpan humour of Barbe-Bleue or the infectious medley that is La Vie parisienne – ending a sequence that, in this new digital transfer, wears its decades with ease.

On its first appearance, the May 1972 account of Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No.3 (“avec orgue”) was highly acclaimed as a demonstration disc. More than that, Frémaux’s responsiveness to the unity of this work’s cyclical conception helped refocus its status as more than just a ‘one off’, with the incisiveness of the CBSO’s winds in the first movement, the purity of its strings in the Adagio and dexterity of duetting Frank Wibaut and Harry Jones) in the Scherzo capped if not outweighed by Christopher Robinson’s vibrant organ contribution to the Finale.

Worth recalling is Frémaux’s readiness to perform contemporary music, thanks partly to the commissioning zeal of the Feeney Trust. The June 1972 recording of John McCabe’s Second Symphony, made soon after its premiere, captures the excitement though also inventiveness of one of its composer’s finest orchestral works (inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s western The Wild Bunch). Formally more relaxed while no less resourceful, the song-cycle Notturni ed alba followed in November, though soprano Jill Gomez had given the premiere two years earlier (at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester) and these rapturous settings of medieval Latin texts are ideally suited to her sensuous tones. Frémaux secures a dedicated response, enhanced by some of EMI’s best sound from this period (and produced by the late Bill Newman).

1973 saw two collections of French music. That recorded in August focussed on twentieth-century pieces, opening with what is still the benchmark account of Ibert’s uproarious Divertissment then continuing with a visceral take on Honegger’s Pacific 231. Frémaux is no less inside the idiom of Poulenc’s Les Biches, its Suite a pastiche of all those its composer held dear, while Debussy’s oft-maligned orchestration of the First and Third from Satie’s Gymnopédies combine wistfulness and elegance.

If the collection of mainly nineteenth-century French music, recorded in September 1973, feels less successful, this is more to do with the competition than intrinsic failings. That said, Ravel’s Boléro is methodical rather than remorseless, while Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is limpid if not ideally evocative. The drama of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice is vividly caught, as also the mock-horror of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, while the authentic aura of Chabrier’s España banishes the merest thought of Spanish package- holidays from this period.

The absence of Bizet’s music from these sessions was made good in April 1974 with a recording of his symphonic works. Whether Roma is a Symphony or a Suite is doubtless one of the reasons it was never definitively realised, yet these evocations of the composer’s stay in Rome in the late-1850s have tangibly symphonic focus and Frémaux conveys this accordingly. No such doubts about the Symphony in C, the teenage Bizet’s ‘coming of age’ as remained unheard for eighty years but whose vigour and charm come through vividly in this appealing account.

May 1974 featured the Tortelier family on another Saint-Saëns disc. Paul Tortelier is at his animated best in the First Cello Concerto, then evincing grace in Le Cygne (with harpist Robert Johnston) and energy in the Allegro appassionato. His son Yan Pascal takes the bravura of Ysaÿe’s arrangement of the Caprice (Opus 53/6) in his stride, as also the sombre yearning of the Prelude from the oratorio Le Déluge, while Paul’s pianist-daughter Maria de la Pau is equal to the frothy charms of the Wedding Cake caprice.

Next up was Berlioz in September 1974, opening with an animated account of Le Carnaval romain then proceeding with the stark Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet – its ghostly vocalise a first recorded appearance by the CBSO Chorus. The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini is a little short-winded; better are three excerpts from La Damnation de Faust and two from Les Troyens, an atmospheric ‘Chasse royale et orage’ then a ‘Marche troyenne’ whose tensile brilliance sets the seal on the CBSO’s only visit in this period to the Abbey Road studios.

That release was preparation for the CBSO and Frémaux’s most ambitious project. Recorded in April 1975, their account of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts appeared at a time when this piece languished in the shadow of Verdi’s Requiem. Never sluggish or mannered, Frémaux emphasises the spatial ambience of Berlioz’s conception as well as that inwardness far more to the fore than those seismic climaxes occupying a fraction of its eighty-three minutes. Not that the latter are passed over, though the sonic richness (originally mixed for quadrophonic reproduction) tends to favour atmosphere over impact. As trained by Gordon Clinton, the CBSO Chorus acquits itself ably in even the most intricate polyphony; tenor Robert Tear meets the heady tessitura of the ‘Sanctus’ with almost complete security, and Frémaux ensures that the monumental entity never sprawls or loses purpose. From the anxiety of the ‘Requiem et Kyrie’ to the rapt fulfilment of the ‘Agnus Dei’, this remains a significant addition to the discography of a work as can lay claim to its composer’s finest.

Less familiar French music followed that August, with an LP of Jacques Ibert’s music. A BBC commission, Bacchanale exudes verve and suavity such as Frémaux captures in full, yet the animated Louisville Concerto is less engaging than its fanciful narrative might suggest. Best here is the Symphonie marine which its composer kept under wraps as his ‘will and testament’, its restrained yet evocative scoring allied to an obliquely evolving form that packs considerable incident into its modest duration. Ibert had envisaged a full-length Symphony prior to his death; what was posthumously designated as Bostoniana is its first and only completed movement – a complex and outgoing affair whose manifest difficulties are met with confidence by a CBSO at the height of its 1970s’ powers.

The Tortelier connection was renewed in September 1975 with two notable pieces by Lalo, a composer whose stature has since enjoyed a grudging reassessment. Paul does full justice to the Cello Concerto, arguably its composer’s finest orchestral work in its amalgam of formal rigour with no mean expressive breadth, while Yan Pascal (shortly to embark upon his successful conducting career) keeps the Symphonie espagnole (given in its complete, five-movement form) on a firm but flexible rein; relishing its poetry as well as its virtuosity.

A release devoted to Poulenc followed in April and May 1976. Despite a high-profile premiere in Boston, the Piano Concerto has never been as popular as those for organ and two pianos, but Cristina Ortíz finds poise to its Andante and vivacity in the ‘Rondeau à la française’, while Frémaux holds the prolix first movement together effectively. The Gloria is one of Poulenc’s defining works, and though the CBSO Chorus may lack a degree of fervour, the chaste purity of Norma Burrowes’s contribution to the ‘Dominus Deus’ sections fairly silences criticism.

The fast approaching Silver Jubilee celebrations enabled Frémaux to confirm his credentials as a leading Walton interpreter, with two issues recorded in September 1976. The first of these coupled the two Façade suites (given in the composite order as specified by the composer), animated and ironic but without affectation, with the Suite derived from the wartime ballet The Wise Virgins – its orchestration of Bach already anachronistic by ‘authentic’ standards, though with a corresponding warmth and eloquence that the CBSO conveys in ample measure.

Yet it was the latter release which remains a highpoint of the CBSO/Frémaux partnership. Not least for an electrifying version of the Gloria, passed over since its premiere fifteen years earlier and here revealed as the most inventive of its composer’s later works. The excellence of the CBSO Chorus is complemented by that from the solo singers (Barbara Robotham, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Brian Rayner Cook); Frémaux as alive to the contemplative aspect of this as to the unbridled opulence of the Te Deum written for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation; the Choristers of Worcester Cathedral and organist Francis Grier adding to its festal atmosphere. No less impressive are the Coronation Marches, an effervescent Orb and Sceptre and an uncut Crown Imperial which builds to a resplendent apotheosis unmatched by any other recording.

December 1977 brought the final sessions and another piece closely associated with Frémaux. Fauré’s Requiem was hardly unrecorded, but this was immediately recognised as something special. Measured though never sluggish, it captures the essence of a not-always serene work. The CBSO Chorus again gives of its best, with signal contributions from Cook and especially Burrowes in the rapture of ‘Pie Jesu’. The CBSO is no less responsive, not least in Fauré’s burnished string writing, with David Bell’s organ contribution ideally integrated into the texture. The brief yet pertinent coupling is the composer’s early Cantique de Jean Racine, whose pensive calm is unerringly conveyed.

The partnership need not have finished there. Britten’s War Requiem had been scheduled for the coming year, but the breakdown of Frémaux’s relationship with the CBSO hastened his departure in June 1978 – never again to conduct this orchestra (though he did conduct again in Birmingham, receiving an ovation when he appeared at Symphony Hall with the National Youth Orchestra in 1997, leading Berlioz, Hindemith and Shostakovich). News, and maybe even an advance copy, of this Warner Classics set reached Frémaux shortly before his death: hopefully he felt renewed pride in the achievement contained therein.

 

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