Louis Frémaux was principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) from 1969 to 1978. During that time he built the orchestra to the point where his successor Simon Rattle called it “the best French orchestra in the world.” He also founded the 120-voice CBSO Chorus heard in the Berlioz Requiem and other choral works. Frémaux built his reputation as a conductor of French music, but he was also a champion of modern music, and had a special affinity for the works of William Walton.
A 12-CD set, The Complete CBSO Recordings includes all of Frémaux’s EMI recordings with the CBSO. Most of the CDs feature French music (by Berlioz, Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Fauré, Honegger, Ibert, Lalo, Litolff, Massenet, Offenbach, Poulenc, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Satie), but three CDs demonstrate Frémaux’s interest in Walton (the two Façade Suites, The Wise Virgins ballet suite, Gloria, Te Deum, and the Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre Coronation Marches) and modern music (John McCabe’s chilly but colorful sound world evident in his Symphony No. 2 and the song cycle Notturni ed Alba with Jill Gomez, soprano). The collection also contains Frémaux’s rather odd first recording with the CBSO of Puccini, Bizet, and various operetta arias sung by David Hughes, who was a local crossover tenor. His voice is pleasant enough and Frémaux is a sympathetic accompanist, but the collection will have little interest for most listeners because the arias are sung in English.
Frémaux’s conducting style emphasizing clarity, precision, fluid phrasing, and dynamic contrasts is ideal for most of the French music that he recorded. From an audiophile’s standpoint, Frémaux, like Sir Charles Groves, who was another conductor who wasn’t a household name, frequently benefitted from EMI’s best sound near the end of the analog era. Some of this music (for example, Massenet’s Le Cid/Scènes pittoresques and a collection of popular Offenbach overtures) has been previously available on a difficult to find EMI Studio Two CD. Four of these recordings (the Berlioz Requiem, Massenet’s Le Cid/Scènes pittoresques, Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, and The Carnival of the Animals) appeared on HP’s Super LP List, and others, like the Ibert, Walton, and Poulenc collections, perhaps deserved to be on it.
Frémaux’s Berlioz Requiem does not have the massive impact of the celebrated Charles Munch (RCA) and Colin Davis (Philips) recordings. Frémaux frequently emphasizes Berlioz’s transparent chamber-like textures with a clearly identifiable French sonority. He gets the eerie flute/trombone chords in the Hostias and Agnus Dei and the soft cymbal/bass drum taps in the Sanctus just right. I would not choose Frémaux over Munch or Davis in the Requiem, but his interpretation is a viable alternative despite the fact that the CBSO brass section clearly struggles to project the power of Berlioz’s carefully planned, apocalyptic climaxes. In addition, the miking of the tenor soloist (Robert Tear) is a real problem. Tear sings the part reasonably well, but he is miked so closely that the size and volume of his voice as recorded here pretty much destroy the unique, reverent tone of the Sanctus with its ethereal orchestration, though I must admit that no recording has ever gotten this sublime but difficult to perform and record music perfectly for me.
Frémaux effectively applies his Gallic touch to the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony. In that sense, he resembles Paul Paray (Mercury) more than Munch (RCA). The massed strings sound sweet and have no sense of harshness or wiriness. There is good balance between the strings and organ with a warm and deep pedal in the excellent second movement. Fine instrumental detail is lacking in the third movement (the piano is not clearly articulated and the triangle is nearly buried in the mix). Frémaux’s sluggish tempo also detracts from the movement’s quicksilver lightness. The entry of the organ in the fourth movement is just a little timid compared to Munch and Paray, but Frémaux paces the finale well, and the CBSO and organ produce a resplendent sonority at the end. The Carnival of the Animals (with piano soloists John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas) is just about perfect.
Massenet’s Le Cid ballet suite is the best single recording in this collection, sonically and interpretively. EMI never matched the clarity, focal instrumental imaging (especially the woodwinds), and spectacular percussion effects in any other CBSO recording. In fact there is no other recording of the Le Cid ballet music that is even close, and the Scènes pittoresques is so good it makes you wish Frémaux had recorded Massenet’s other orchestral suites. Frémaux’s brilliant performances of Ibert’s wacky Divertissement and the rarely heard Symphonie marine, Bacchanale, Louisville Concerto, and Bostoniana have no serious rivals.
Frémaux’s take on the music of Walton, Honegger (Pacific 231), and Poulenc (Gloria, Les Biches, and the Piano Concerto with Cristina Ortiz as soloist) is uniformly excellent. The superb choral work in Walton’s Gloria and Te Deum makes it regrettable that Frémaux never got around to recording Walton’s acclaimed Belshazzar’s Feast. Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre are quite spectacular, but Fremaux’s tempos, especially for the big tunes, are so fast that they detract from the inimitable British grandeur that Frederick Fennell achieves on Mercury. The two Façade Suites (without speakers) and The Wise Virgins ballet suite are brilliantly done. It is interesting to contrast Walton’s spiky, neoclassical ballet based on the music of Bach with Leopold Stokowski’s lush Romantic Bach arrangements.
Frémaux even outdoes Arthur Fiedler in his spectacular collection of Offenbach overtures, including Orphée aux enfers, La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Belle Hélène, Barbe-Bleue, and La Vie Parisienne. Bizet’s Symphony in C ranks close to Munch (RCA) and Leonard Bernstein (Columbia), and Frémaux may be the only conductor to ever make Roma work regardless of whether it is a symphony or symphonic suite (I have not heard Sir Thomas Beecham’s interpretation).
Frémaux and violinist Yan Pascal Tortelier make Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole more than a showpiece for the soloist. The Lalo and Saint-Saëns Cello Concertos (both with Paul Tortelier as soloist) are even better, though some may prefer Janos Starker’s lean tone and Antal Doráti’s rhythmic precision (in the Saint-Saëns Concerto) with Mercury’s more detailed sound. The scherzo from Henry Litolff’s Concerto symphonique No. 4 (with Ogdon as the piano soloist), and a group of Saint-Saëns miniatures, including “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals, Caprice for Violin and Orchestra, Prelude to Le Déluge, Wedding Cake, Allegro appassionato, and Danse macabre are all similarly excellent and fit well into this collection.
Frémaux plays the Fauré Requiem in its 1900 version for an expanded orchestra. It sounds rich and luxuriant, but may be a little too densely textured for some contemporary tastes. Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, and Ballade for Piano and Orchestra (again featuring Ogdon as soloist) are appealing but distinctly minor works. Honegger’s Pacific 231 is also very good, but there are many other credible choices.
All is not ideal, though. Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune and Satie’s Gymnopédies No. 1 and 3 are somewhat lacking in atmosphere, and Chabrier’s España, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Ravel’s Boléro are rather surprisingly earthbound, perhaps because of the cavernous sound that seriously hampers instrumental focus and impact. In comparison with the generally excellent sonics on most of the other recordings in the collection, this is perhaps a graphic demonstration of the effect of the sound on the perception of a performance. Frémaux’s Le Carnaval Romain and Benvenuto Cellini Overtures are very good, but cannot seriously compete with Munch (RCA), Davis (RCA), or Previn (EMI). On the other hand, the “Royal Hunt and Storm” and Trojan March from Les Troyens are fine, and the Marche funèbre pour la derniere scène d’Hamlet is a desirable rarity.
This set is available now at Amazon for $26.39, which is barely over $2 per CD! That represents still another incredible bargain that should make this well-deserved tribute to Fremaux and the CBSO and chorus highly desirable for audiophiles and music lovers.