SCO & François Leleux - Bizet & Gounod - Europadisc

Here’s a timely release that’s sure to lift the spirits. Oboist François Leleux conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a delightful programme of French music that oozes Gallic charm and refinement. At its centre is Gounod’s lovely Petite Symphonie, scored for wind nonet (flute plus pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns). First performed in April 1885 by Paul Taffanel’s Société de musique pour instruments à vent (with Taffanel himself no doubt taking the flute part), it was unpublished until 1904, and showcases the many strengths and characteristics of the French woodwind tradition. After a sombre slow introduction, the work soon opens up into a world of utter magic, with a first movement Allegro animated by bustling bassoons, clarinets and oboes doing much of the motivic work, and the flute adding a distinctive glow on top of the Mozartian Harmoniemusik. An elegant flute melody leads the Andante slow movement, while the horns lend a strong hunting flavour to the Scherzo, and there’s a Mendelssohnian lightness to the second section before a more relaxed Trio. The punchy Allegretto Finale introduces some fleeting darker tones, as well as entertainingly overlapping horns, and the work ends in the happy mood that has predominated throughout.

At just under 20 minutes in length, the Gounod is a real jewel, and it leaves one in no doubt as to the strengths of the SCO’s formidable wind section, with special mentions for oboists Robin Williams and Rosie Staniforth, flute Silvia Careddu, and first clarinet Maximiliano Martín. No doubt Leleux brought his own wide experience to bear on this beautifully shaped and paced performance, which is a real winner from first note to last.

Gounod was a huge influence on Georges Bizet, and it’s fitting that two of Bizet’s most popular works should frame the Petite Symphonie. Proceedings open with an atmospheric account of the first Carmen Suite, arranged (after the composer’s tragically early demise in 1875) by Ernest Guiraud. It includes some of the opera’s most engaging numbers, including the Act III ‘Aragonaise’, the Act II ‘Intermezzo’ and the Act I ‘Séguidille’, finishing off with a good dose of the Overture including the ever-popular Toreador song. There are more turbo-charged performances of this Suite on disc, but the SCO’s performance has the advantage of a scale that seems far more in keeping with the music’s theatrical origins, and once again Leleux’s experienced, charismatic guidance secures a performance that feels thoroughly idiomatic.

The disc ends with a dazzling performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C. A student work with the palpable influence of the Viennese classics, Rossini and Mendelssohn, this precocious piece languished in obscurity until brought to public notice by Felix Weingartner and published in 1935 at his own experience. Thanks largely to its championing by Beecham, it was a concert staple in the postwar years, but Leleux’s breezy, fresh-spirited performance demonstrates that there’s still plenty of life in it. He coaxes from the SCO an energetic, buoyant account of the first movement, a dreamy Adagio with hints of southern climes, an exuberant Scherzo complete with rustic Trio section, and to round things off a witty, helter-skelter Allegro vivace that keeps the violins and upper wind in particular on their toes. Brass are ideally balanced to add punch without dominating, and there’s some lovely string portamento to add extra charm.

Musicians so often lift our lives away from everyday cares: now more than ever, with so many arts organisations on indefinite hold, they need our support. So do yourself and them a favour, and hear this splendidly pert, enlivening disc, excellently recorded in Dundee’s Caird Hall by Linn. It should bring a smile to even the dourest countenance.

20 March 2020