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Although founded by conductor François-Xavier Roth back in 2003, it was only ten years later that the French period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles burst into the British consciousness, when it made its debut at the BBC Proms in a rip-roaring, roof-lifting concert of French ballet music (taking in works by Lully, Rameau, Delibes and Massenet) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which was performed in its original version to mark the work’s centenary.

Although the orchestra’s stated aim is to be a versatile ensemble that can perform music from the baroque, classical, romantic and modern eras on appropriate instruments, the majority of its recordings have been of 19th- and early 20th-century French repertoire, which are the subject of this review. (I do recommend searching out their recording of the Rite, also released on Musicales Actes Sud – it will seriously challenge the way in which you think of the piece.)

The least well-known composer here is Théodore Dubois (1837–1924), who won the Prix de Rome in 1861 and taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire for over 40 years. The quirky Piano Concerto No 2 is given a sparkling yet moving performance by soloist Vanessa Wagner, with the second movement Adagio a particular highlight; also on the disc are his decet for ten winds and strings and the Ouverture de Frithiof, which may have been intended as the start of a whole opera about the legendary Icelandic warrior-king.

Paul Dukas studied under Dubois, but his reputation only slightly exceeds that of his teacher thanks to one work – though the wittiness and charm of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is such that it deserves to be known even without Disney’s illustration of the story in Fantasia. It receives a blazing, dramatic performance from Roth, but those of the companion pieces – the cantata Velléda, Dukas’ unsuccessful submission for the 1888 Prix de Rome, and an overture inspired by Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte – lack the same drive.

Camille Saint-Saëns was succeeded as organist at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris by Dubois (who was only two years his junior), but there the connections and similarities end, for Saint-Saëns was renowned in his day as a prolific versatile polymath, who wrote on a variety of subjects (including geology, mathematics, botany and acoustics) as well as effortlessly turning out compositions. This disc features two of his best-known works. The ‘Organ’ symphony was captured live on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Saint-Sulpice with the conductor’s father at the manuals – the church’s acoustic rather masks some of the fine details of Saint-Saëns’ score, but this is still a revelatory performance, not least for hearing the blend between the 1862 organ and the period French woodwind. Heisser plays an 1874 Erard in the fourth piano concerto, to similarly clarifying effect.

The recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is the earliest here – the performance being given only six years after the orchestra’s founding – and the work is also the oldest, written in 1830 under the influence of Beethoven’s symphonies. This and the Saint-Saëns disc above are the two I would choose to best illustrate the auditory possibilities that Les Siècles can conjure up: the storm scene is bone-shaking, the march to the scaffold utterly haunting, and the final movement – the vision of the witches’ Sabbath – is downright terrifying, the Dies Iræ theme given more weight by a set of period bells.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica


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