by Anthony Kershaw
By all accounts, Bizet was happy in both childhood and as an adult. Unfortunately, that life was cut short at 36 when Bizet died from a heart condition. Yet, this innate happiness is evident in much of his music, especially the two major works found on this new Reference Recordings CD — the ebullient Symphony in C and the engaging Jeux d’enfants (Children’s Games). Only in the Felix Weingartner orchestral arrangement of Bizet’s serious piano work, Variations Chromatiques, do we get any inclination of the road ahead.
As an orchestral musician, I always forget about the Symphony in C. Not sure why. It’s a mini masterpiece of inspiration written when Bizet was only 17. The inspiration was taken from Schubert, early Beethoven, and (in the Scherzo) Schumann. Beautifully composed and artfully orchestrated, the Symphony is filled to the brim with lovely melodies and clever counterpoint. And always, just behind the Germanic style, a little Gallic wink peeks through. If you don’t know this work, this wonderful performance will be a perfect introduction. I dare say, though, that as you listen to the opening bars, you’ll think, ‘I know this!’.
The same may be said of the marvellous Children’s Games. I’ve loved this work from childhood (the Trumpet and Drum theme was one of my favourite tunes as a kid), but only knew it in Bizet’s orchestration (five movements, including the ultra famous Galop). Later, Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas orchestrated the balance of the movements. Here, we receive all twelve in a wonderful showcase for the musicians of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (a first recording). Special mention to the trumpet, oboe and flute for their splendid contributions. Conductor Martin West captures the innocence of youth and allows his soloists to shine with rubato and flexibility.
The recording, sourced at Skywalker Studios, is much like the SF Ballet’s previous CD release. As such, it’s yet another gem from Keith Johnson and his team. No matter where the recording is sourced, Johnson manages to snag the Reference ‘house’ sound. Meaning, incredibly defined bass, beautiful separation of instruments (listen to the flute and violin unison in the Symphony’s opening movement, especially high As at the ends of phrases — total separation with both individual timbres intact), and a general feeling of audiophile good will as Johnson and the musicians create magic.
The Berlin Phil and the LSO are expensive to record. The Philly and New York Phil? Fuggedaboutit! So, it’s nice to hear such high quality playing from second tier US bands and displayed for posterity in such incredible sound. Another winning release from the Reference team.
Reference Recordings HDCD RR-131
Playing time: 75:27
Purchase CD at our affiliate, Amazon.