Double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...; Emmanuel Chabrier: Orchestral Music Vienna Philharmonic / John Eliot Gardiner (DG 447 751-2)

Persuasive man, John Eliot Gardiner. I wonder how much coaxing it took to convince the Vienna Philharmonic that Emmanuel Chabrier was a composer they could do business with? Doubtless they will have recognised in him a kind of Francophile Johann Strauss, an aristocrat with the common touch, a musical tart with a heart. The real Chabrier is to be found in the somewhat over-rouged and giddying whirl of the Fete polonaise (give the VPO a waltz and it's Wiener Blut all over again). It's the twinkle in the eye, the cheeky charmer turned so devilishly knowing. It's the rudeness of the colours, the piquancy of the sauce. Espana is at once deft and overwhelmingly vulgar. The beery horns of Marche francaise (Joyeuse Marche) betray a street mentality. Then again, with Suite pastorale (just how many of Your Hundred Best Tunes can Chabrier claim?) we've as direct, as fragrant an evocation of his Auvergne childhood as could be imagined. Faure with a twist. But a movement like "Idylle" is only idyllic in retrospect. Chabrier, one feels, couldn't wait to grow up and move out.

Wine, women, song - Chabrier found his in Spain (cue the sultry Habanera) - we know where the VPO found theirs. This is gorgeously homespun playing. Prelude pastoral - a verdant little treat - has enjoyed a number of repeats already. Likewise, the scrumptious Larghetto for horn and orchestra. Ronald Janezic (the VPO's mellifluous principal) plays it like New Year's Day has come early this year - head in the clouds, perchance-to-dream. But how far removed that is from the world of Gwendoline, a heroic opera set on the east coast of Britain in the eighth century AD. A likely tale, you'll be thinking, on hearing the overture. Chabrier, the light-fingered miniaturist, assumes Wagnerian pretensions with this one (small wonder - he was a fervent propagandist for the great man). The stylistic cribbing is as blatant as it is shameless, Tristan chords haunting a coda of breathtaking pomposity in which some corny Parisian street-song mistakenly imagines it's the Pilgrims' Chorus from Tannhauser. Bliss. ES

I have always liked the idea of Emmanuel Chabrier. He may not have been immune to Wagner fever (how many late-19th century French composers were?), but there were signs of healthy scepticism. Visiting Wagner's house at Bayreuth, Chabrier was underwhelmed by his treatment (Cosima lectured him at length on her husband's greatness), and apparently disposed of an unwanted prune tart by hiding it in a draw full of the Master's silk underwear.

That story sits happily with the musical content of this disc. There is one example of what Gustav Holst called "good, old-fashioned Wagnerian bawling" in the overture to the opera Gwendoline. But two years later comes the Prelude pastoral, in which echoes of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (and even a hint of Tristan) blend with sharper-tasting Gallic folk strains - a delicious sweet-and-sour mixture. Then comes total release in the Prelude's companion-piece, the riotous Marche francaise. It was an excellent idea to put these three pieces in chronological sequence and let them tell their story this way.

The rest of the programme? I have to confess to a resistance to Espana - over-exposure in youth orchestra days, perhaps. But the Larghetto for horn and orchestra is a lovely, atmospheric miniature, while the Suite pastorale is the Chabrier I love best: sophistication and childlike simplicity combined, delicate orchestration and haunting tunes.

John Eliot Gardiner, the "Toscanini of the period-instrument movement", may not have been the obvious choice for music like this, and yet his affection for Chabrier is evident from the start. Fascinating to hear how the Vienna Philharmonic approach it, too; Chabrier's evocation of childhood in the Suite sounds surprisingly close to Mahler in places. But it's hard to feel anything other than delight in the Larghetto or that wicked Marche francaise. Even the Vienna Musikverein acoustic sounds as if it enjoyed the change. SJ

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