CHAUSSON: Symphony in B flat.  Po╦me pour violon. Po╦me de l'amour et de la mer
Chantal Juillet, violin; Fran┴ois le Roux, baritone; Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit, cond.|

Decca  458 010 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:21

I'm surprised no one thought of this logical, handy program before. These are Chausson's three most popular works -- if "popular" and "Chausson" don't constitute an oxymoron -- yet this is their first appearance together on CD.

Charles Dutoit draws the symphony in soft-edged attacks, enveloping even the brassy bits in a mantle of plush, string-dominated tone. Everything sounds unfailingly beautiful, and at times this approach brings dividends -- the slow movement's final cadence, for example, blossoms easily, where the added brass are usually overkill. But accompanying this low-keyed breadth and homogenized sonority is some absence of thrust and drive. The taut, slashing Paray (Mercury) and the idiosyncratic, sometimes feverish Munch (RCA), drawing sharper dynamic and textural contrasts, wring more drama from the score than Dutoit finds, or acknowledges. Dutoit's finale builds logically, for example, but the sense of turbulent conflict yielding to a broader repose remains unrealized. The performance satisfies, but as an abstract musical experience rather than an emotional journey.

Oddly, both the substantial "fillers" benefit from just the sort of variety the symphony misses. The opening of the violin Po╦me immediately shows a greater sensitivity to color and contrast; the strings project their vibrant chromatic progressions with a distinctive Expressionist yearning. Once past a slightly raspy start, soloist Chantal Juillet steers a middle course between chastity and passion, filling out her lyrical, arching lines with intense tone and firmly bound legato.

One usually hears a female rather than a male soloist in the Po╦me de l'amour et de la mer. Fran┴ois le Roux's baryton-martin should serve it well, but in the first movement he sacrifices the phrases to choppy declamation and lunges into the higher notes; attempting an "operatic" involvement, he merely achieves melodrama. In the last movement he maintains a cleaner, more controlled attack, with better-focused, more stylish results. Dutoit is in his element, responsive to drama and detail, filling out the surging climaxes nicely. The play of dignified, lyrical strings against liquid woodwinds at the opening is vivid; the lovingly layered textures at the third movement's start paint a beautiful awakening and the long interlude is dark and ambivalent.

Decca's production is handsome and easy on the ears, as usual. The up-front balance in the symphony "flattens" the dynamics, precluding a real piano even in light scoring, and the climaxes don't really bloom. In the other two pieces, recorded at different sessions, the balances are more natural and there is greater depth, although Le Roux is closely miked.

S.F.V. (May 2000)