Offenbach: Romantique: Orchestral music includes Overture 'Orpheus in the Underworld' and Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

Offenbach: Romantique: Orchestral music includes Overture 'Orpheus in the Underworld' and Concerto for Cello and Orchestra cover $37.00 Low Stock add to cart

Offenbach: Romantique: Orchestral music includes Overture 'Orpheus in the Underworld' and Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Jérome Pernoo (cello) / Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

[ Deutsche Grammophon / CD ]

Release Date: Tuesday 20 February 2007

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"The playing from orchestra and soloist alike is of the highest class… Under Minkowski's alert baton, rhythms bounce, tunes sparkle and dynamic contrasts make you jump." BBC Music

"This delightful collection of Offenbach works is interesting because it includes some lesser-known material by this composer."
(MusicWeb Jan 2007)

Familiarity with the famous galop from Orphée aux enfers and the finale of La Vie Parisienne has tended to obscure Offenbach's early career. Failing to see the wood for the trees, we have all too often forgotten that before creating the French opéra bouffe, Offenbach was one of the greatest cellists of his day, and that far from restricting himself to making his Parisian audiences laugh, he was also an impassioned Romantic gifted with an astonishing melodic vein. His grand opera Die Rheinnixen, the delicate Fantasio, Les Contes d'Hoffmann of course, as well as the works included in the present release should be enough to convince listeners of this claim's validity.

Thanks to his almost fiendish virtuosity, Offenbach was known to his contemporaries as the "Liszt of the cello". Indeed, he even appeared on the same concert platform as Liszt, as well as with Anton Rubinstein and Friedrich von Flotow, both in Paris and in his native Germany. It was Offenbach, too, who introduced Beethoven's cello sonatas to France. But above and beyond the pleasure that he took in performing the music of others, his true passion was composition, and from a very early age he produced an impressive corpus of works for his favourite instrument, writing not only many shorter pieces but also countless studies and fantasias and a number of larger orchestral works, chief among which are a Danse bohémienne, a Grande Scène espagnole and, above all, the tremendous Concerto militaire, here recorded complete for the first time.

Offenbach himself gave the first performance of the concerto's opening movement at the Salle Moreau-Sainti in Paris on 24 April 1847 - it is unclear why the remaining movements were not performed at that time. It is likely that Offenbach played the work on a number of later occasions, although the only fully documented performance took place in Cologne on 24 October 1848. The work then fell into obscurity and it was not until a century later that the composer's grandson, Jacques Brindejont-Offenbach, unearthed it and entrusted the autograph score of the opening movement, together with a number of surviving piano sketches, to the cellist Jean-Max Clément. Clément prepared a new edition of the score based on these various sources, reserving for himself the right to perform the piece in the concert hall. He did what he could to reconstruct the second and third movements, which he orchestrated on the basis of the original piano sketches, while taking certain liberties with the material. In particular, he cut a number of passages in the opening movement that he judged to be too difficult.

In fact, both Clément and Jacques Brindejont-Offenbach were unaware that autograph copies of the Andante and final movement were lodged in the family archives, in both cases completed and orchestrated by Offenbach himself. Admittedly, neither manuscript was meaningfully headed and the introductions to both movements had been substantially developed and changed when compared to the piano sketches, so that it is difficult to detect any connection between the different pieces in the jigsaw without a detailed study of the sources.

Clément's version of the Concerto militaire was extremely uneven and incomplete. Nor was it very successful. Meanwhile, Offenbach's unpublished papers were scattered throughout the entire world when his manuscripts were auctioned off. It was a combination of archival research and pure chance that allowed the present writer to discover the complete manuscript of the second movement in Cologne at the city's historical archives (Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln) and that of the final movement in Washington at the Library of Congress. The autograph of the opening movement was acquired by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, having long formed part of the collection of the distinguished conductor, and shrewd collector, Richard Bonynge. At the same time, the Offenbach family archives were found to contain a complete set of the instrumental parts of the opening movement used at the Paris première in 1847, while the composer's earliest sketches were discovered - again by the present writer - in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in New Haven.

The Cologne Andante is largely identical with the sketches used by Clément. The Washington version of the third movement, by contrast, features several themes that are entirely different from those found in the sketches. In spite of this, the most significant feature remains the consistency of the orchestral colour and tonal discourse, which ensures that all three movements, however scattered, form a coherent whole. This is particularly true of the link between the Andante and the final movement, which creates an entirely natural impression, unlike the abrupt introduction in a self-contained version of the final movement (known under the erroneous title of Concerto Rondo) that was still in circulation until relatively recently.

The military element that gives the work its title is clear from the timpani strokes at the start of the opening movement that invest the principal theme with its martial rhythm. But it is really only in the third movement that this element is fully developed, sometimes striking a clangorous, joyful note, sometimes appearing more disturbing and even anguished, for example in the funeral procession that quite unexpectedly passes across the "battlefield" - the attentive listener may be surprised to "recognize" here and there certain turns of phrase that seem to look forward to Mahler, even Shostakovich.

Above all, however, it is the spirit of the future composer of La belle Hélène that already permeates this concerto, with its hyper-Romanticism and a virtuosity that invariably draws strength and life from the most profound lyricism, notably in the wonderful Andante, in which the hypersensitive composer's most elegiac writing is alleviated by the humour of which he was a past master. The result, especially in the final movement, is that happy blend of tenderness and madness, melancholy and jubilation that one finds again and again in the composer's 650 surviving works. This music has a Beethovenian ardour but is also surprisingly daring from a harmonic standpoint.

On a purely technical level, finally, it must be said that Offenbach exploits the full range of the cello's possibilities, even taking his soloist to the very limits of what is feasible and clearly demanding an exceptional interpreter for an altogether exceptional work. The demands of Paganini at his most unbridled almost seem straightforward in comparison to Offenbach's: diabolical double stopping, almost impossible positions, melodies in precarious harmonics, motifs played in perilously high registers, acrobatics and traps of every sort. Nothing is spared the virtuoso.

By 1864 much had changed in Offenbach's life. The young composer of 1848, who had worked so hard to introduce his music to a deeply indifferent Parisian public, was now a fashionable artist, setting his little world dancing, his talents both recognized and envied. First staged at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris in 1864, La belle Hélène proved a triumphant success, while in Vienna a different masterpiece - the Romantic grand opera Die Rheinnixen ("The Rhine Nixies") - fell victim to a cabal orchestrated by a Wagnerian faction, the local press laying into a composer whom they derided as "the little Mozart of the Champs-Élysées". Audiences, conversely, were not misled but greeted the performances with thunderous applause. One of the main themes from Die Rheinnixen, the "Song of the Elves", which recurs in the overture, was to leave its listeners in no two minds about its merits when it reappeared 15 years later as the Barcarolle in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Conversely, the ballet music for Die Rheinnixen was borrowed from another of the composer's masterpieces that still awaits rediscovery, Le Papillon, a Romantic grand ballet first staged at the Paris Opéra in 1860.

The present recording begins and ends with two works - the rhapsodic overture to Orphée aux enfers (1874) and the "Snowflake Ballet" from Le Voyage dans la lune (1875) - that both bear witness to one of the most successful periods in Offenbach's life. By now he had become director of the Théâtre de la Gaîté, one of the most beautiful halls in Paris, and he finally had at his disposal a full-size orchestra with a proper pit and a genuine corps de ballet. He now revised two of his earliest successes - Orphée aux enfers and Geneviève de Brabant - to take account of these magnificent new surroundings and to offer his astonished audiences an entirely new type of opera, the opéra-bouffe féerie, a fairytale light opera in which nothing was too sensational - a work designed to fill his audiences with a sense of genuine wonderment. Pictorial poetry and Bacchian euphoria are combined in these snowflakes, which suffice to prove that the composer had no need of a pseudo-cancan, of a Gaîté parisienne or of assiduous arrangers to create orchestral magic. May the present recording contribute to the revival of an authentic Offenbach.
(Jean-Christophe Keck)


Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers): Ouverture
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, "Concerto militaire"
Le Fées du Rhin:
Grande Valse
Le voyage dans la lune:
Ballet des Flocons de neige