Take equal measures of (a) the music of a second-tier French composer, (b) the skills of a second-tier orchestra now deep in the American Rust Belt, and (c) the wizardry of the engineering staff of a second-tier American record label. Whip thoroughly into a froth using a thin ivory wand wielded by an expert French chef. Store for four and one-half decades. Carefully remove from storage and serve up on the latest platter, known to aficianados of this musico-culinary art as hybrid SACD.
That, in a nutshell, is what this superb new Mercury Living Presence hybrid SACD is all about. One of the first batch of such releases from Decca/Philips, Paul Paray's recording of the musical bon bons of Chabrier (with a nice filler of music by Roussel) has long been a classic, ever since the works were released on LP (actually, spread over four different LPs) nearly 45 years ago. A little over a decade ago, Mercury had released this same set of works as a conventional CD, remastered by the same person who had been in charge of the original recordings: Wilma Cozart Fine. This identical remastering is present in the "redbook" layer of this new hybrid SACD, but it is the SACD layer that merits special attention (and the 5 stars that I have assigned to the release).
I of course do Chabrier a tongue-in-cheek disservice by referring to him as a second-tier composer. Nonetheless, he had the misfortune of being a contemporary of Bizet, Fauré and Saint-Saëns, a fact that tends to obscure his musical contributions. Moreover, he had only a brief composing career, jammed into the final decade of his life (ending just as Claude Debussy's was beginning). Despite these disadvantages, a good bit of Chabrier's music is a frequent fixture at "pops" concerts, especially two works on this album: "España" and "Joyeuse Marche." Chabrier clearly had a flair for the bubbly in music, and most of his works on this album reflect that flair.
But Chabrier was also - despite his abbreviated career - an accomplished operatic composer (this despite the fact that his operas never did manage to make their way into the central repertoire). Perhaps his masterpiece in this genre is "Gwendoline," if the overture performed here is any indicator. It is a finely-wrought and dramatic work which, with its insistent timpani strokes at the beginning of the work, reminds me somewhat of the youthful Giacomo Puccini's Prelude to Act I of his "Edgar." Perhaps my favorite among Chabrier's works played here.
The album is nicely filled out with Albert Roussel's three-movement "Suite in F," a somewhat more modern work in a neoclassical vein, but still fitting in with the bubbly spirit of the Chabrier works.
My tongue is still further in my cheek with my "second-tier" reference to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Under Paul Paray's leadership, the DSO was in fact an excellent group. (And it has pretty much remained as such, although Paray did have the proper panache and insoucience that these French bon-bons require, probably in greater measure than almost any other conductor in recent memory).
Finally, there was never anything second-tier about the Mercury organization when it came to recording technology. In recent decades, only Telarc - among all of the American labels - seems to have been so successful with recordings of such uniformly high quality. But I think that Mercury easily "led the pack" for analog recording quality before the advent of the CD. One needs no more proof of this fact than simply listening to the SACD layer of this hybrid disc: It is a model of clarity and detail at all dynamic ranges, sounding as if it were produced "the day before yesterday."
Put all these ingredients together, and one does in fact have a "surefire recipe for Gallic confections!"