Bizet: L'arlésienne (Suites 1 & 2 etc.); Carmen (Prélude & Entractes I, II, III)

Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski (Naïve V5130)

19 July 2008 4.5 stars

Bizet: L'arlesienne etc.One of the most interesting concerts I attended at last year's Proms was that given by Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble under Marc Minkowski (Prom 22). The whole second half was devoted over to the incidental music Bizet composed for Alphonse Daudet's play, L'arlésienne.

The play itself is conventional enough: the young Frédéri falls in love with the girl from Arles of the title, but has to renounce his love for her when he finds out that she's been the lover of Mitifio the horse handler. Meanwhile another girl, Vivette, is in love with Frédéri. In the end it all gets too much for Frédéri and the drama culminates with his suicide. If the play itself has fallen into obscurity, Minkowski is to be thanked for reviving much of Bizet's often exquisite incidental music that has not lived on in the two suites – the first compiled and reorchestrated by Bizet himself; the second by Ernest Guiraud in 1879, four years after Bizet's death.

When in their Prom these forces performed all the incidental music, it was difficult to follow the action and appreciate how skilfully Bizet had composed his music to suit each dramatic situation. Marc Minkowski writes in the booklet that 'shorn of the text which is their justification, these twenty-five numbers [of the original incidental music], often very short, come to seem decidedly long.' The solution he has hit upon, to include a selection of eight numbers from the original incidental music between the two suites, seems the best way of presenting as much of the music as possible without the listener losing track. The discrepancy in the forces used for the Suites and the original numbers – written for a modest pit orchestra – remains but in the face of such spritely, lucid and lively playing, becomes largely irrelevant.

Many listeners will already be familiar with the two suites. The first starts with the famous Ouverture, vigorous variations on the 'Marcho dei rei' followed by vignettes of Frédéri and his brother, the 'innocent', portrayed in a languidly melancholy theme on the saxophone. It is followed by a rustic Minuetto, a proto-Mahlerian Adagietto (played here with stunning, hushed intensity) and the Carrillon. The playing of the Second Suite, inevitably orchestrated with less flair and individuality by Guiraud, is every bit as excellent, culminating in a furious and bucolic account of the Farandole.

The intervening numbers from the incidental music occasionally overplay the sun-baked rusticity card – hardly Bizet's fault – but there are some astonishingly innovative effects. The use of wordless chorus not only looks forward to Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé but also, more surprisingly, brought the Swingle Singers to mind. After the droning Pastorale (re-used to kick off Guiraud's suite), the chorus's first entry, to the accompaniment of a drum beat and interjections on the piccolo, is intensely evocative, as is the mysterious incantation against strumming harp that follows. Other numbers give snippets of gently melancholic string writing and if the lilting flute melodies that precede the Farandole slightly overstay their welcome, the Farandole in its original form, given colour by the inclusion of the chorus, is a toe-tapping delight. After another lyrical Entracte, featuring once again the haunting theme for Frédéri's brother, the chorus get to join in for the 'Marcho dei rei', mixing it ebulliently with the Farandole.

As already hinted, there's some repetition of material between the suites (particularly the second) and the incidental music but this is to some extent compensated for by the changes in instrumentation; the repeat of the Pastorale that opens the Second Suite, however, pales against the imagination of the original version with its use of the chorus. The playing of Minkowski and his band, plus the all-important contributions of the Choeur de l'Opéra National de Lyon, is outstanding throughout. The contribution from the woodwind, in particular, is consistently stylish, seductive and highly polished; although the whole band is equally adept at creating the refined rusticity that the score also calls for.

As a generous filler, and foretaste of a potential period-instrument Carmen (Minkowski writes that he and his orchestra are 'biding our time until we eventually record the complete work' – although his original French suggests more of an 'if' than a 'when') we have that opera's Prélude and three Entractes. Suffice to say, on this evidence, and with the right singers, a Minkowski Carmen should be a treat.

The CD itself is generously housed in a small hardback book, filled with high quality colour reproductions of works by, among others, Gaugin and Van Gogh and containing several essays. The recording quality is clean, airy and detailed. Highly recommended.

By Hugo Shirley