Admittedly, the only really familiar work in this Mercury Living Presence compilation is Ernest Chausson's dramatic "Symphony in B flat Major." Paul Paray's legendary recording of this powerful work with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is definitely one of the best ever made. Paray had a long life and career; he really understood the French masters and this recording demonstrates that. This writer was fortunate to hear and see Paray guest-conduct the San Francisco Symphony in all-French program and there was no question that he was not only competent but brilliant.
The Mercury Living Presence classical series spanned the years 1951 to 1968; the original vinyl recordings were great achievements in high fidelity and, eventually, stereophonic recording. Indeed, the Mercury recordings became milestones and, eventually, collectors' items. It is wonderful that Phillips has reissued these recordings on CDs. They remain high points in American classical recordings. Paul Paray's numerous recordings for Mercury with the Detroit Symphony are among the finest performances of the French repetoire.
Part of the appeal of this CD is hearing some rarely-performed works. First is the overture to Lalo's opera "Le Roi d'Ys." I don't believe the opera is performed anymore, despite some very fine arias. The overture is even a rarity now and it's a special treat to hear Paray's spirited, driving performance of the music. This is the epitome of French romanticism and one can almost picture the first performance in the elegant Paris Opera House in the middle nineteenth century, before an audience that would have included the aristocratic members of the Jockey Club, who so loved to watch the corps de ballet since many of the female dancers were "favorites" of those gentlemen.
Certainly Lalo's ballet "Namouna" would have been a favorite of the Parisians. It has some infectious, imaginative tunes, some of which are included in the first concert suite here recorded.
A great contrast comes with Henri Barraud's "Offrande a une ombre," a very powerful, deeply emotional work written during World War II, when France had been terribly humbled by the Nazi invaders. There is considerable anguish in this music, but Barraud also seems to offer some hope that better days lie ahead. The recording was originally issued only in mono; this is the first time it has been available in stereo.
This is a very enjoyable compilation by a fine French maestro, leading the outstanding Detroit orchestra, in sensational Mercury recordings.