Chabrier / Orchestral Music / Ansermet – Reviewed in 2011

More of the music of Emmanual Chabrier (1841-1894) 

Reviews and Commentaries for Chabrier’s Orchestral Music

This Super Hot Stamper Decca reissue pressing has superb sound on both sides, with some of the loveliest orchestral music reproduction we’ve ever heard.

On both sides it is very RICH and TUBEY. Some might even say that it’s too “Tubey Magical”, but of course that’s a matter of taste. If you like the dry sterility of the modern Heavy Vinyl pressing, perhaps this is not the right record for you. Or maybe this is EXACTLY the record you need, the one that can show you what real vintage Golden Age Glorious Analog is all about.

If you want a classical record to TEST your system, if you want a classical record to DEMO your system, you will have a hard time finding a better pressing than this one — if what you want to demonstrate is the sound of Tubey Magic. Many of the London pressings we played in our shootout sounded dry and shrill next to this lovely Decca.

Side One

A++ Super Hot Stamper sound. It’s richer, fuller and tubier than practically any other pressing we’ve played. It’s very musical.

Side Two

A++, with more clarity and space, and less smear than side one. It’s rich, with a big, tight bottom end and plenty of orchestral energy. Less tubey, perhaps a tad more truthful. Compare the two sides to see what we mean.

A Longtime Favorite

This has been a favorite recording of ours here at Better Records for a very long time, since at least the mid-’90s or thereabouts. We’ve mentioned how much we like the sound of Londons from about 6400 to 6500 or so (which are simply Decca recordings from the mid-’60s), and this Decca reissue is one of the reasons why.

You get some of the Tubey Magic and golden age sound from Decca’s earlier days, coupled with the clarity and freedom from compression and tube smear of their later period. In other words, this record strikes the perfect sonic balance, retaining qualities from different periods that are normally at odds with each other. Here they complement each other wonderfully.

The Typical Pressing

The typical pressing of the fairly common London has some real issues, the most common ones being a lack of top end and a lack of midrange presence, making the sound darker and more distant than it should be. On the other extreme, most copies lack weight down low, thinning out the sound and washing out the lower strings. We’ve been saving up copies of this title for a while now, and dropping the needle on some of them made us wonder what the hell we saw in this record in the first place.

All doubts are removed when you play a copy — London or Decca — that really has the goods. This copy is sure to make you a believer, you have our word (and 100% Money Back Guarantee) on that.

The Music

Who can resist these sublimely colorful orchestral works? They are an audiophile’s dream come true. Click on the Espana tab above to read more about that work.

I much prefer Ansermet’s performances to those of Paray on Mercury. I know of none better.


Side One

Rhapsody “Espana”
Suite Pastorale

Side Two

Joyeuse Marche 
Danse Slave 
Fete Polonaise

Wikipedia on Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier (January 18, 1841 – September 13, 1894) was a French Romantic composer and pianist. Although known primarily for two of his orchestral works, España and Joyeuse marche, he left an important corpus of operas (including the increasingly popular L’étoile), songs, and piano music as well. These works, though small in number, are of very high quality, and he was admired by composers as diverse as Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Satie, Schmitt, Stravinsky, and the group of composers known as Les six. Stravinsky alluded to España in his ballet Petrushka, Ravel wrote that the opening bars of Le roi malgré lui changed the course of harmony in France, Poulenc wrote a biography of the composer, and Richard Strauss conducted the first staged performance of Chabrier’s incomplete opera Briséïs.

Wikipedia on Espana

España, rhapsody for orchestra (España, rapsodie pour orchestre) is a piece of music for orchestra by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–1894), being one of his most well-known works.

After a short guitar-like introduction, the first theme appears low on muted trumpets, and recurs four times during the piece. This is followed by a flowing second theme (bassoons, horns, cellos). Bassoons introduce another idea ben giocoso, sempre con impeto after which instrumental sections take up a dialogue with another highly rhythmic theme. After a return to the first theme, another flowing melody dolce espressivo on upper strings leads to a climax only broken by a marcato theme on trombones. Instrumental and thematic variants lead the piece to its ecstatic and joyous conclusion.

Chabrier’s España inaugurated the vogue for hispanically-flavoured music which found further expression in Debussy’s Ibéria and Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole.

From July to December 1882 Chabrier and his wife toured Spain, taking in San Sebastian, Burgos, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Cordoba, Valencia, Saragossa and Barcelona. His letters written during his travels are full of good humour, keen observation and his reactions to the music and dance he came across – and demonstrate his genuine literary gift. In a letter to Edouard Moullé (1845–1923); a long-time musician friend of Chabrier, himself interested in folk music of Normandy and Spain, the composer details his researches into regional dance forms, giving notated musical examples. A later letter to Lamoureux, from Cadiz, dated 25 October (in Spanish) has Chabrier writing that on his return to Paris he would compose an ‘extraordinary fantasia’ which would incite the audience to a pitch of excitement, and that even Lamoureux would be obliged to hug the orchestral leader in his arms, so voluptuous would be his melodies.

Although at first Chabrier worked on the piece for piano duet, this evolved into a work for full orchestra. Composed between January and August 1883, it was originally called Jota but this became España in October 1883. Encored at its first performance, and received well by the critics, it sealed Chabrier’s fame overnight. The work was praised by Lecocq, Duparc, Hahn, de Falla (who did not think any Spanish composer had succeeded in achieving so genuine a version of the jota) and even Mahler (who declared it to be “the start of modern music” to musicians of the New York Philharmonic).

AMG on Suite pastorale, for orchestra

“Without hesitation,” Poulenc wrote, “I declare that the Pièces pittoresques are as important for French music as Debussy’s Préludes.” Only seven of the ten were given by Marie Poitevin at their Société Nationale premiere, August 9, 1881 — according to Cortot — though among them were the four numbers Chabrier would later orchestrate as his Suite pastorale, and for which he seems to have had an especial fondness.

But to speak of them merely as piano music, or of the Suite pastorale as a pianist’s music orchestrated, as is sometimes done, is to miss Chabrier’s distinctive compact richness and his exquisite awareness of style.

Ostensibly polite drawing room fare evoking pleasant country scenes, the first number of the Suite pastorale, “Idylle,” on the keyboard, demands, sans pedal, a Lisztian legato for its fetching melody, simultaneously accompanied by two motoric parts in Alkanesque staccato.

Though the pianistic allusions are lost, the superb and constantly varied resourcefulness with which their effects are transferred to the orchestra demonstrates the implicitness of Chabrier’s orchestral imagination in one of his most pianistic pieces. After the quietly percolating animation of the Idylle, the “Danse villageoise” has all the rumbustious vigor of a rustic clog dance. Turning raucous in its orchestral guise, it is set off by a fleet trio whose additions of instrumental color shade its spirited frolic with winsome grace. As in the first two pieces, the undulating charm of the gently ecstatic “Sous-bois” provides a foil for high-kicking gaiety in the concluding scherzo-valse. In their alternations of boisterousness and tendresse, we have the essential Chabrier.

Too often, such distinguished composers as Berlioz, Fauré, and Chabrier — quintessential Parisians all — were forced to seek recognition in the provinces or abroad. Chabrier orchestrated the Suite pastorale for a Chabrier festival offered by the Association Artistique of Angers, which he conducted November 4, 1888, with his Habañera, the Joyeuse marche, Prélude pastoral, and España.

During rehearsals under his direction, the orchestra caught on immediately to his rollicking style and were convulsed with laughter, while the critics, though generally approving, felt obliged to comment on Chabrier’s “Wagnerism” — an astounding charge as nothing could be further from the heavy metal solemnities of Wagner’s scores than these scintillant, often coruscating, dialogues between subtlety and éclat.

Kenneth Wilkinson

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release.

In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

Wilkinson retired from Decca when the company was taken over by the PolyGram group in 1980. He made no free-lance recordings. His work was released on Lyrita and Reader’s Digest records (as mentioned above) and RCA Records with recordings licensed through Decca. His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation:

The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory.

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