Jules Massenet has an unfair reputation for sentimentality at the expense of originality – perhaps the legacy of becoming the heir of Meyerbeer. Maybe his most enduring operatic works, the lengthy, and at times sugary Manon and the overwrought Werther are partly to blame, exposing him at his most emotionally heart on sleeve. Massenet at his best, however, could be nearly as masterful an orchestrator as Bizet and almost as original as Chabrier. For those prepared to delve deeper there are delights in store, as this delicious French soufflé of a disc from Neeme Järvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande amply demonstrates.
We start on familiar ground with the sparkling, Spanish-inflected ballet music from the opera El Cid. The orchestra is absolutely spot on with stunning woodwind solos (listen to the flute in the twinkling Aubade) and rattling castanets aplenty. The Estonian-born Järvi corrals his forces as if to the chateau born. The final Scènes Pittoresques are similarly joyfully realised.
In between come the rarities. The most fascinating is the very fine Fantaisie for cello (the only other recording in the catalogue being Richard Bonynge’s with the same orchestra). It’s a cracking work that deserves to be in the repertoire and the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk is quite outstanding here. He also excels in the more sentimental Last Sleep of the Virgin and (but only if you download the bonus track) ends the disc with a lovely cello arrangement of the ubiquitous Meditation from Thaïs.
Elsewhere we get a rather inappropriately bouncy overture to Racine’s Phèdre and the overture to Le Roi de Lahore – one of Massenet’s forgotten operatic gems notable for the fact that the hero dies well before the middle of the work! The jaunty Sevillana from Don César de Bazan is the icing on the gateau.