Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Danse Macabre, the second piece on the second side, is the heart of the album and its raison d’être for us. This is where the real fireworks can be found, although that’s not really fair as there are fireworks aplenty on both sides.
What we have here is the best Danse Macabre we have ever played.
We have always been fans of Gibson’s performance on the legendary Witches’ Brew. As good as that recording may be, this one is clearly superior in practically every way — it’s bigger, clearer, richer, more resolving, more spacious, more real and, to my surprise, more EXCITING and involving.
If you own a copy of LSC 2225, hopefully not the awful Classic pressing, you need to hear what Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have accomplished.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)
This piece opens the side. There is depth and richness to beat the band, as well as clarity and tonal correctness that let you forget the recording and just enjoy the music.
A superb performance as well, as good as any we know of. And the sound is the equal of the best recordings we’ve played.
Espana. Rhapsody For Orchestra (Chabrier)
As good as Fremaux is, I think the Ansermet (CS 6438) might still have the edge, but both are so good that it might just come down to a matter of taste. You cannot go wrong with either.
And now we actually prefer the famous Argenta recording for Decca that’s on the TAS List, CS 6006.
Comparable to our longtime favorite for sound and performance with Ansermet, we cannot say which one we would prefer without doing quite a bit more critical listening, a luxury we do not have at the moment.
We can tell you this: Turn it up and it really comes to life like LIVE MUSIC. It’s big, wide and believable.
This side one was far and away the best we played.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)
Transparency, depth and space were superb on this side, allowing that “you are there” feeling to take hold in the mind. The best copies like this one had plenty of all three.
Who can resist these sublime orchestral works? To quote an infamous (around here) label, they are an audiophile’s dream come true.
The sound is clear, with wonderful depth to the stage. These recordings may just be the ideal blend of clarity and richness, with depth and spaciousness that will put to shame 98% of the classical recordings ever made.
Both sides were just more “real” sounding, BIGGER and RICHER than any other sides we played, hence the superlative grade. Clean bottom and lower mids. Zero smear. They’re so full-bodied and rich, yet clear and clean, and spread out on such a huge stage, these sides may become your go-to reference disc for Orchestral Reproduction.
A Final Note
This is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. None of them, I repeat not a single one of them, can ever begin to sound the way this record sounds.
Ravel – Bolero
Debussy – Prelude A L’apres-midi D’un Faune
Dukas – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
Chabrier – Espana, Rhapsody For Orchestra
Dukas & Chabrier
Ravel had long toyed with the idea of building a composition from a single theme which would grow simply through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity.
“Once the idea of using only one theme was discovered,” he asserted, “any conservatory student could have done as well.”
The relentless snare-drum underpins the whole of the 15-minute work as Ravel inexorably builds on the simple tune until, with a daring modulation from C major to E major, he finally releases the pent-up tension with a burst of fireworks.
Boléro was given its first performance at the Paris Opéra on November 20, 1928. The premiere was acclaimed by a shouting, stamping, cheering audience in the midst of which a woman was heard screaming: “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”). When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly replied: “That lady… she understood.”
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said: “I am particularly desirous there should be no misunderstanding about this work. It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving other or more than it actually does.”
Yet although Ravel considered Boléro one of his least important works, it has always been his most popular.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Born in 1862 in St-Germain-en-Laye, France, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, where he both excelled and startled professors with his defiance; he would reportedly sit at the piano and play chords that rejected all the textbook rules. Like many composers before and since, Debussy’s work was greatly inspired by poetry, and the composer was also friends with many of the day’s poets, including Stephane Mallarmé.
It was Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) that inspired Debussy to write what was likely meant to be a three-part orchestral work with the titles Prélude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale. Debussy completed the Prelude in 1894 – as just a one-movement work. He revised it up until the very last minute and the premiere was at the Société Nationale de Musique in December 1894, with Gustave Doret conducting.
The flute’s theme, recurring throughout the work, represents the faun, though it is not intended as a literal translation of the poem. The line – solo at the very start – moves chromatically down to a tritone below the original pitch, then ascends back to the original pitch. The line progresses throughout the piece and its metamorphoses account for the Prelude’s richness of texture and harmony. We even hear Debussy’s increasing interest in non-Western scales and timbres (he would use the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan more in his later works, and continued to write using the whole-tone scale).
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is nothing if not a great timbral achievement. Debussy uses a relatively small orchestra by the standards of the late 19th century. Brass and percussion are all but omitted. Crotales, the only percussion, are used sparingly and expertly. The only brass are four horns, while the wind section includes a third flute and English horn. Debussy also gives significant material to two harpists, and asks for a number of subtle shadings from the strings, including mutes, and playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard) and pizzicato techniques. Debussy produces a remarkable degree of color from his orchestra.
Mallarmé’s poem – about “a faun dreaming of the conquest of nymphs” – transitions between dream and reality, giving Debussy the perfect arena to explore his new language. Prelude stands as a turning point in music history and had profound effects on the generation of composers that followed. Debussy had established an incredibly innovative style – both in terms of the way the orchestra is treated, and in his approach to harmony and musical structure. In so doing, Debussy found the perfect way to capture the dream-state of the afternoon of the faun.
Dukas & Chabrier
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (French: L’apprenti sorcier) is a symphonic poem by the French composer Paul Dukas, written in 1896–97.
By far the most performed and recorded of Dukas’s works, its notable appearance in the Walt Disney 1940 animated film Fantasia has led to the piece becoming widely known to audiences outside the classical concert hall.
Inspired by the Goethe poem, Dukas’s work is part of the larger Romantic genre of programmatic music, which composers like Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss increasingly explored as an alternative to earlier symphonic forms.
Unlike other tone poems, such as La mer by Debussy or Finlandia by Sibelius, Dukas’s work is, like works such as Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Strauss, descriptively programmatic, closely following the events described in the Goethe poem. Instrumentation.
The instrumentation of the piece consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon (or contrabass sarrusophone), four horns, two trumpets (in C), two cornets, three trombones, timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp and strings.
The formidable glockenspiel part is sometimes handled by a pianist playing a keyboard glockenspiel or celesta, but is usually played by a percussionist on a traditional glockenspiel making it a common orchestral excerpt for percussion auditions.
Although The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was already a popular concert piece, it was brought to a much larger audience through its inclusion in the 1940 Walt Disney animated concert film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse plays the role of the apprentice. Disney had acquired the music rights in 1937 when he planned to release a separate Mickey Mouse film, which, at the suggestion of Leopold Stokowski, was eventually expanded into Fantasia.
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. 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).
There’s a good chance you’ve heard Danse Macabre pretty regularly throughout the background of your life, even without ever realizing it. It features in that Jameson commercial where there’s a whiskey-thieving hawk who gets barbecued up at the end in the streets of Dublin by Johnny Jameson himself.
Saint-Saëns was never one of the classical heavies like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, or Handel, but he was a formidable prodigy, an organ master, and a variegated composer probably best known, now, for The Carnival of the Animals. That’s essentially his Peter and the Wolf number—as much, if not more, for children—and a work he refused to have published in full in his lifetime, thinking it would cause people to stop taking him seriously as a composer for adults.
The organ, so to speak, is in the strings.
In general, there’s something about organ music that induces terror. Maybe it’s the austere settings of the church where the instrment normally resides. Also the tonal range, sheer volume, echo-friendly notes, and rib-tingling power factor in, too. It’s as if the organ represents the sounds inside of us made externally audible. Your fears, doubts, paranoias, given sonic voice. Reverberating, swirling. For proof check out any garden-variety horror film from mid-century, or something so organ-dominated like 1962’s Carnival of Souls, a film I absolutely refuse to watch at night anymore.
Saint-Saëns wrote Danse Macabre, which is technically a tone poem—a form he rarely worked in—140 years ago, in 1874. There is no organ, but that aforesaid swirling, night-cycling sensibility is there, like we’re shifting through one shade of dark to another and back again, an endless nightmare loop. When the Beatles didn’t have a drummer, they said the rhythm was in the guitars, and one could very well claim that with Danse Macabre, the organ, so to speak, was in the strings.
Halloween wasn’t much of anything in this country 100 years ago, so it’s pretty new as we think of it with the costuming and the trick-or-treating. The European tradition, from which Saint-Saëns’s wrote, was the tradition of scaring the absolute bejeezus out of you. Consider the premise of Danse Macabre, which means, if you haven’t guess it yet, “dance of death.” The Reaper rouses himself out of bed at midnight on Halloween, summons the skeletons from the grave, and they all boogie down to dawn.
Even long before Saint-Saëns’s tone poem came along, woodcuts were common throughout Europe at Halloweentime featuring a plowman walking to the field to resume his endless toil, and the Reaper sidling up next to him and saying something like, “hey, this burden, this hard life, it can all be over just like that, come over here with me by this hayrick and have a rest.” That’s where this music springs from, and that’s no Ben Cooper costume conceit.
Saint-Saëns signals the arrival of midnight with a harp picking out 12 notes. A violin begins a wicked canter, a flute instigates a second theme, and these themes, distributed over the other instruments of the orchestra, dance with each other with grim inevitability, what you might fancy the rhythm of a ghost story. A quote from the Dies Irae (the scary bit in requiems) is flown in, and when the two themes mesh, at the piece’s loudest, most rhythmically intense point, it’s like, “do your thing, sun, get back up in that sky, and end this horror.”
Relief comes with an oboe signaling the cock’s cry, and everyone, presumably, gets back into their graves, dance over. But this is the real Halloween cask-strength stuff, and a reminder, of sorts, as well. Sure, everyone gets a birthday, and then you dance through life the best you can—but everyone gets a death day, too. How do you like bobbing for them apples?