City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Recorded between June 1970 and December 1977 in various locations
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: October 2017
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
0190295886738 (12 CDs)
Duration: 14 hours 12 minutes
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.
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).
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.
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.