SCO & François Leleux - Bizet & Gounod - Gramophone

François Leleux’s first album with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra flanks Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for nine wind instruments with Bizet’s Symphony in C and the first of the Carmen suites posthumously arranged by Ernest Guiraud, who also provided the opera with its now discredited recitatives. A regular guest with the SCO, the oboist turned conductor has clearly established a strong relationship with the orchestra over the years: we hear him in both roles here, in performances that have bags of charm and sound as authentically French as one could wish.

The Symphony in C sounds marvellously fresh and new-minted here. Leleux carefully calibrates the balance between energy and grace, so that everything seems perfectly proportioned and nothing is rushed or heavy-footed. Bizet’s debts to his classical models – Haydn, early Beethoven – are discreetly emphasised without losing sight of his originality or individuality. The outer movements have tremendous verve. There’s plenty of wit and warmth in the Scherzo – the Trio is particularly delightful – and the Adagio is all wistful refinement, its oboe solo exquisitely played. The SCO strings are ravishing at this point, too, and later do wonderful things with the gossamer textures of the finale.

I admit to being less fond than some, however, of Guiraud’s Carmen rehash, with its lurching juxtaposition between the Fate theme and the Act 4 Aragonaise at the start, and the vocal line of the Séguedille transcribed for cor anglais and trumpet, which robs it of some of its sensuousness. But you can’t fault the performance, which has the same qualities of proportion and balance as the Symphony, with beautifully poised flute and clarinet solos in the Act 2 Intermezzo and real brio in the closing Toreador’s March. Leleux plays first oboe in the Gounod, meanwhile, where one notes his familiar beauty of tone and sensitivity of phrasing. He’s very much part of an ensemble of equals, though: there’s a real sense of give and take among the instrumentalists here, in a performance of fastidious elegance and, once again, great refinement. The recording itself captures some occasional woodwind key-clatter but is otherwise scrupulously engineered. A hugely enjoyable disc.

01 June 2020