Someone once described Saint-Saens as "the only great composer who was not a genius." His rival Jules Massenet may have been neither a great composer nor a genius, but he knew how to write a good tune and clothe it in enticing colors. In addition to his operas, several of which have been enjoying unexpected revivals recently, Massenet wrote seven orchestral suites, which after the first (titled simply "Suite d'orchestre" ) he designated "Scenes . . . " They are all of a descriptive nature, some inspired by recollections of travels, others by literature or fantasy alone.
The Scenes pittoresques (Suite No. 4) and Scenes alsaciennes (No. 7) are quite deservedly the best-known. But the others that have been heard on records that have been heard on records are so easy to like -- as is, of course, the suite of ballet music from Le Cid , which Massenet might have codified in this cycle as "Scenes espagnoles " -- that it seems odd, in what Irving Kolodin so long ago dubbed "the Age of Complete," that there has been no "integral" recording of the whole cycle, and that Nos. 1 and 5 (Scenes napolitaines ) still await attention.
In any event, the Musical Heritage Society has issued a two-disc set in which more than half of this enchanting material is covered. It contains the Scenes pittoresques , the Scenes alsaciennes , the Scenes dramtiques (Suite No. 3, based on episodes in Shakespeare's "Tempest," "Othello" and "Macbeth" and the premiere recording of the Scenes de feerie (Suite No. 6), in buoyant, extremely sympathetic performances by the Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner (MHS-4212/4213).
Until now Gardiner had been identified primarily with the 17th-century material recorded by his own London-based Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra. He has also accompanied Julian Bream in guitar concertos by Lennox Berkeley and Joaquin Rodrigo on RCA, but none of this activity would have given any hints of his now obvious flair for Massenet. This is not great music, surely not "important" music, but Gardiner's enthusiasm is not hard to understand: The material is extremely well crafted and exudes an elegance and charm almost as rare as true greatness.
The performances are more than merely enlivening. The specific mood or spirit of every festive, fanciful or reflective movement is caught superbly, with the straightforward warmth one may remember from Albert Wolff's lovable old London disc of the Suites Nos. 4 and 7 (more suited to this material, I think, than Richard Bonynge's somewhat perfumed treatment of Nos. 3 and 7 on a more recent London). The Monte Carlo orchestra responds brilliantly on this occasion, and the sound itself (the recording was made by Erato) is especially vivid and well defined.
There are some agreeable little trifles filling out two of the four sides. One is "The Last Sleep of the Virgin," from Massenet's oratorio La Vierge , once a favorite "lollipop" of Sir Thomas Beecham. The others are two interludes -- "Serenade de Don Quichotte" and La Tristesse de Dulcinee" -- from the opera Don Quichotte .
The second of Massenet's seven suites, the Scenes hongroises , has been available on Turnabout QTV 34570 for the last five or six years, in an attractive performance by the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra under Pierre Cao. aIt only remains now for someone to give us at last the Suite d'orchestre and the Scenes napolitaines . Perhaps Gardiner will cover these three titles in a second set, which might be filled out with material from some of Massenet's sets of incidental music for plays. His very first such effort, for Leconte de Lisle's Les Erinnyes , included the famous "Elegie ," and for Racine's Phedre he composed a similarly familiar overture. Also in that list are such intriguing titles as Michel Strogoff and, from toward the end of Massenet's life, Perce-Neige et les sept gnomes ("Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs").
In the meantime, the word for the set already issued is "delicious," and if you happen to be starting to compile a holiday gift list, this could be an inexpensive way to spread a little cheer.