Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bizet's L'Arlesienne and Symphony in C (CSO/Martinon)

Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites Nos.1 and 2, Symphony in C; Ravel: Alborada del gracioso; Massenet: Meditation from Thais
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Jean Martinon
Tower Records RCA Precious Selection 1000, No.8 TWCL 1008 | Stereo ADD

On the eve before his own recording of Bizet's L'Arlesienne suites and Symphony, Daniel Barenboim and Peter Andry, Barenboim's producer, listened to the old RPO/Beecham recording of the same works. After the last chord of the Farandole had died away, Baremboim turned to Andry and only half jokingly told him, "maybe we ought to pack our bags and go home." Beecham's classic account is still after all these years a top recommendation and is still the yardstick by which all subsequent recordings are measured. But there a few other wonderful recordings of Bizet's suites and Symphony that deserve a place next to Beecham. Martinon's recording is one of them and has been hard to find in the CD era having been reissued on a special series only available through Tower Records Japan.

As is well known, Martinon's tenure in Chicago was a stormy one. Nothing new here. After Frederick Stock's death, Chicago chewed through a stellar roster of conductors: Desire Defauw, Artur Rodzinski, and Rafael Kubelik. Wilhelm Furtwängler was to have succeeded Rodzinski, but a nasty campaign organized to keep "Nazi" musicians out of America ended any possibility of pursuing a career in America. Even Fritz Reiner, today synonymous with the CSO, wasn't let off the hook. Though he lasted short of a decade--the longest tenure yet post-Stock and pre-Solti--his Chicago days ended bitterly with much acromoniousness between him, the orchestra, and the orchestra's board of directors. "We ran the son-of-a-bitch outta town without even giving him a good-bye," proudly crowed one director. In the wake of the Reiner debacle, the CSO quickly began the search for a successor. Karl Böhm was Reiner's choice, but Chicago had no interest in Reiner's wishes. Georg Solti was asked, but he was afraid to step into Reiner's shadow. Eventually the choice was an unexpected one--the fifty one year old director of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Jean Martinon. Unusual because the CSO was perhaps the most German of all American orchestras. German was the lingua franca in rehearsals well even into the 1950's. But Martinon seemed like a fine choice. He had mastered a very wide repertoire and, to the pleasure of some Chicago critics who felt that Reiner's programming was too pedestrian, he was an avid champion of modern music. The stage was set for another CSO golden age. Which is exactly what didn't happen.

For a variety of reasons that don't seem to make sense today, Martinon became despised by Chicago critics. The loudest of them was the redoubtable Claudia Cassidy, the acerbic arts critic for the Chicago Tribune, who after torpedoing Kubelik and Reiner was hungry for another target. If you listen to airchecks and recordings from this era, though, you hear something quite different. Some powerful and glorious music was being made in Chicago those days. Whatever these critics hated about Martinon is impossible to hear. Upset and tired with the Chicago grind, Martinon resigned from the orchestra in 1968 and went on to lead the Paris Orchestra where he made some exquisite recordings of Ravel and Debussy. In the mid-1970's he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and he died in Paris at the age of 66.

Martinon's Chicago discography includes some of the very best work any American orchestra has ever made including a blazing Nielsen Inextinguishable that still remains the one to beat. The recording I'm posting today, Martinon's last with the orchestra, is an outstanding tribute to a great orchestra and an unjustly maligned conductor. Martinon's L'Arlesienne and Symphony in C are handsomely played with elegant polish and burnished sound. Martinon was able to rein in the Chicago brass, but when he lets them off the leash like in the Pastorale or Farandole their sound can blow your roof off. A lithe Symphony in C follows and makes for a dapper discmate. Ravel's Alborada del gracioso is next and is given a more ornate performance in comparison to Reiner's own recording of the work with the same orchestra. Reiner looks at the big picture so to speak and revels in the sound of the orchestra as a whole; Martinon finds the beauty of the individual instruments and groups. Massenet's deathless Meditation from Thais serves as a touching souvenir of this partnership. The violin solo is finely shaped and played with great warmth.

The sound, while not an audiophile's dream come true a la Living Stereo is pretty good, though keep in mind this was originally made for those horrible Dyna-Groove records. Some print through is audible in the Bizet items, but they're faint enough not to be a distraction. Don't hold your breath for Sony/BMG to make this available stateside (or in Europe, for that matter).


  1. http://www.mediafire.com/?jt1n1tzawqm

  2. Wonderful rendition of the Bizet Symphony in C! The playing is suberb. There are still critics who don't value Martinon CSO recordings, they think too litteral. Martinon did not replete in self consciousness, but the music could be vibrant and warm. These recordings make the critics sound absurd. Dan

  3. Thanks! Haven't heard these Bizet pieces before.