Monday 14 September 2015

A thoroughly enjoyable re-release from Naxos that shows a different side to Ibert

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) was born in Paris and studied with Vidal at the Paris conservatoire, winning the Prix de Rome in 1919. He later returned to Rome as the Director of the French Academy. Amongst his large output were comic operas, ballets, songs, chamber music and orchestral works.

When one reads about Ibert’s music, the terms urbane, colourful, technically polished and witty are often used. Yet a newly re-released disc from Naxos,  previously released on Marco Polo, featuring soprano, Daniela Kubricka with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra  and Slovak Philharmonic Chorus  conducted by Adriano shows other facets of this composer not least in his atmospheric orchestral work The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

La Ballade de la Geôle de Reading (1921) was first performed in 1922 at the Paris Concerts Colonne conducted by Gabriel Pierné. It is, of course inspired by Oscar Wilde’s poem of that name, sections of which head each of the three parts of the score.

Adriano and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra bring a gloomy, dark opening in the basses to Part I, building the music beautifully as it rises and flowers. This is a work full of atmosphere, colour and imagination.  It rises to a passionate climax before moving through light textured, impressionistic passages. After a final climax the music tails off to a quiet coda with gentle timpani taps.

Part 2 opens in a lighter mood with quicksilver, sparkling passages. However, there is soon an underlying sense of menace, as the music moves ahead with woodwind arabesques. Brass soon take the lead before a rather eastern sounding moment arrives. Brass again take the theme lumbering ahead, before woodwind bring a slower, gloomier section. The music moves through some unsettling passages, becoming increasingly agitated and, even in lighter moments, there is a sense of desperation. A somewhat riotous coda takes us into the final part.

Part III has the basses again opening gloomily.  The music slowly tries to rise with some lovely woodwind phrases, yet the menace is still apparent. Here Ibert gives us some superb orchestration, imaginative, colourful and atmospheric. Halfway through, the music becomes desperate, rising wildly before falling back and losing power in a moment of very beautiful, yet sorrowful music that leads to a resigned coda full of sadness.

Trois Pièces de Ballet (Le Rencontres) (1921-22) are taken from a set of five piano pieces of which Ibert orchestrated just three. They portray some of the guests that attended his mother’s artistic salon, she being an enthusiastic music lover.

A trumpet and tambourine open Les Bouquetières before an orchestral flourish as the music moves quickly forward, light-hearted in manner, with more fine orchestration. Les Créoles reveals a subtle, slow tango rhythm around which Ibert develops richer, flowing melodic ideas and some strange little variations. Finally there is the lively Les Bavardes, full of colour, bringing to mind Ravel of La Valse as well as a hint of Stravinsky. The music moves playfully on to a swirling coda.

The symphonic poem, Féerique (1924) was again premiered by Gabriel Pierné and originated as a piano piece. There is a beautifully quiet light and glowing opening, out of which a fine oboe melody rises. Woodwind weave an atmospheric passage before the strings lead to a more flowing version around which the woodwind weave. Here the impressionist in Ibert is heard again before the music gains in tempo and dynamics moving quickly ahead and building to a rich climax with a harp figuration that leads to a sudden end.

Chant De Folie (1924) was inspired by the horrors of the First World War, experiences that the composer himself suffered as a young man. It was dedicated to Sergey Koussevitzky who gave its first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1925. The piece opens with a deliberate, steady forward march to which layers of orchestra are added. Soon the wordless chorus enter, rising to a peak before quietening with the chorus still vocalising. The choir then take up the words of the text by Louis Pasteur Valléry-Radot ‘Deep night closes, the skies are red and here they come blood-bespattered.’ There are brass interjections as the plodding strings continue, rising up even louder to end on a climax.

This is a strange yet powerful work.

Suite Élisabéthaine (1942) takes us to a later stage in Ibert’s career with a work that was written for a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Marseilles in 1942. Ibert made a suite from the incidental music, some sections of which draw on English composers such as John Blow, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell.

Brass open the uplifting Prélude with a piccolo trumpet leading throughout and some fine little instrumental details complete with a touch of 16th century style. Chasse moves ahead with a quicksilver theme to which brass add a weight before Entrée brings a grandiose theme, finely orchestrated with lovely woodwind passages.  

Woodwind open the lively Chanson Des Fées where chorus and soprano, Daniela Kubricka join with a lovely simplicity of vocal style. There is a fast moving Dancerie complete with Big Ben’s chimes in the orchestra before a grand Cortège that, nevertheless, has a gentler second half. The Scherzo has a more pointed rhythmic style, nicely written for the woodwind and strings before Nocturne brings further vocalising from the female chorus, delicately written with lovely instrumental details. There is a rousing Finale with a fine trumpet tune reminiscent of Purcell, full of good humour. 

If the only work of Ibert that you know is his Divertissement then this disc is a fine way to get to know some of Ibert’s lesser known music. Just occasionally the Slovak players show a little poor intonation in lower strings and the recording can occasionally sound a little shrill but, regardless of that, I thoroughly enjoyed this disc. There are informative booklet notes from the conductor.

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