Anyone interested in 19th century French music for the theatre will find this collection of overtures and ballet fragments indispensable. And if you're none too familiar with some of these works, or their composers, you'll discover some real treasures here, for this is a set worth savoring frequently and with delight. The finely-engineered recordings were made between 1965 and 1971, principally at Decca's former premiere London recording venue, the old Kingsway Hall, with the remainder coming from the Assembly Hall, Walthamstow. All were originally of high quality, and the newly digitized transfers present this entrancing music with unprecedented clarity and pin-point definition without compromising the credible orchestral perspectives that always characterized earlier Decca productions.
These scintillating performances under Richard Bonynge for the most part remain unmatched in the catalog. There have been a number of broadly similar collections (including a memorable survey from Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos), and although there are some significant oversights here (where for example are Auber's overtures to Le Cheval de bronze and Fra Diavolo?), these discs evidence Bonynge's skill at breathing new life into forgotten gems. Good old tub-thumpers like Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, Boieldieu's Le Calife de Bagdad, and Hérold's Zampa will still be reasonably familiar to most, but these performances are so convincing that you'll wonder why they're omitted from today's supposedly more "intellectual" concert bills.
And then there are the real rarities, wonderful chunks of gorgeous orchestral kitsch like Wallace's Maritana, Planquette's Les Cloches de Corneville, and Les Dragons de Villars by Maillart. They're all vivid examples of a populist genre that simply had its day; but allowing that, when did you last hear even a Suppé overture "live"? The first eight tracks on CD 1 feature the New Philharmonia Orchestra, with the balance of works included on this Double Decca set entrusted to the London Symphony. It would be hard to imagine this thoroughly enjoyable music being either better played or recorded. Superb!--Michael Jameson