Ernest Chausson’s death in 1899 in a bicycle accident robbed French music of a major talent. Almost his entire orchestral output fits on this extremely fine CD. Yan Pascal Tortelier’s performance of the richly romantic Symphony is the best since Munch’s Boston Symphony recording. Like Munch, Tortelier knows how to keep the music moving along–he’s only an insignificant two minutes slower than Munch for the whole work–without overindulging the more luscious moments, which in Chausson’s opulent setting really do take care of themselves. Even better, rather than some overplayed encore piece by another composer, the symphony is coupled with two very attractive, rarely heard tone poems and two charming orchestral excerpts from the composer’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The orchestra plays with conviction, Chandos’ sonics are gorgeous, and if you don’t buy this disc, you’re missing out on some marvelous stuff.
This programme of 1920s French music is in the hands of a conductor who gets right into the spirit of it, and plenty of spirit there is too. Apart from the Ibert, this is ballet music, and that work too originated as a theatre piece, having been incidental music for Eugene Labiche's farce The Italian Straw Hat. Poulenc's unfailingly fresh and bouncy suite from Les biches is very enjoyable although Chandos's warm and resonant recording takes some of the edge off the trumpet tone that is so central to the writing. The geniality of it all makes one forget that this is remarkable music in which (as Christopher Palmer's booklet essay points out) the twentieth-century French composer evokes eighteenth-century fetes galantes through the eyes of that greatest of nineteenth-century ballet composers, Tchaikovsky.
Lili Boulanger's setting of the 130th Psalm is a choral masterpiece. Tortelier and his forces deliver a vivid performance, recorded with tremendous presence. There is even more power in the old Markevich performance, done under Nadia Boulanger's supervision, but the superior Chandos recording makes a difference. Faust et Hélène is a somewhat immature student work (a strange qualification for music by a composer who died at 24), but it is also well performed. The remaining music represents Boulanger's visionary eloquence. This disc is highly recommended as an introduction to a great composer. After you hear it, try the Everest disc, despite the duplications. It contains Boulanger's deathbed Pie Jesu, a brief piece of such intense power that it will leave most listeners in tears.