Massenet: Visions/Brumaire/Phedre/Espada/Les Erinnyes
“I do not believe I have the temperament of a symphonist”, wrote Jules Massenet on his attempt to write a symphony, adding that “it bores me to spin out my thought, to chop it up, to pursue it incessantly, and even to keep coming back to it.” He was, on the other hand, a dab hand with his 27 operas, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his most successful orchestral ventures were those written for theatrical use.

There’s plenty proof of that in this snappy new Naxos release by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud, which opens with the Gothic bombast of the overture Brumaire, written to preface Edouard Noel’s play of the same name commemorating the centenary of a 1799 Napoleonic coup d’état. 

With militaristic snatches of La Marseillaise, scurrying strings and an Elgar-style march that the latter would probably have spiked and replaced with a better one, Massenet goes for instant gratification rather than lasting endearment. The RSNO recognise this in the blustery Brumaire, and also in the overture Phedre. Note in the latter a meatier, more sustained lyricism, its initial wistfulness giving way to joyous fervour and – ever the man of theatre – a deflective ending designed to defy expectations. 

If these RSNO performances bear some unrefined edges, the picture is very different in the Lisztian symphonic poem Visions. The music, and the playing, is exquisite, sumptuously pensive with an awakening that explores mystical heights and dreamy expanses, reaching its most rapt with the ephemeral appearance of distant soprano Poppy Shotts.

Exotic hues are everything in the ballet suite Espada, written to accompany Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the opening of the 1908 Monte Carlo concert season. Chattering castanets and spicy Iberian rhythms set the ball rolling for a foot-tapping feast of bolero, fandango and the rest. Written 25 years earlier, and heard here in its 1876 version, the incidental music to Parnassian playwright Leconte de Lisle’s Les Erinnyes (The Furies) presents a thrusting musical melodrama, from the solemn opening prelude and cloying religiosity of the Invocation, to a series of divertissements that end in a riotous Bacchanal and the RSNO very much in party mode!
Ken Walton