The late romantic French composer Alberic Magnard (1865-1914) has been experiencing a bit of a revival in the last couple of decades. Magnard was born to a wealthy Paris family, studied under several important French musicians, with Vincent d'Indy probably representing the most important influence, published a sparing amount of music (just 22 publications), and died a national hero when in 1914 he personally defended his estate against German soldiers. Magnard's compositions existed in a penumbra of the repertoire for decades after he was shot by those soldiers. I have a French-obsessed music history book from about 1970 which doesn't mention him by name. This Plasson disc was part of a revival effort, an effort that apparently has been reasonably successful, with three CDs of Magnard's four symphonies currently available and performances and recordings of his other works gradually appearing.
So is this mini-hype justified? This Plasson disc is my first encounter with Magnard's music. First of all, he is without doubt a sophisticated and skilled artist. The orchestration is imaginative and well-done, the development of the themes is sophisticated and the structures are ambitious and successfully implemented. Stylistically, he is a late Romantic composer. I found myself surprised to here touches of Mahler-style in the 3rd symphony (1896 - to be clear, there is next to no chance that Magnard was exposed to Mahler, so this is a simultaneous independent choice of certain stylistic devices by two musicians) and also early Sibelius in the scherzo (track 6) of the 3rd (same comment applies - Magnard is unlikely to have known any music by the Finn). But Magnard's music has its own identity. Particularly impressive was the opening allegro of the 3rd symphony (track 5), with an introduction constructed from fifths in the winds, laced with faster themes in the strings. I also enjoyed the scherzo of the 1st symphony (1890). Note that both of these works were written relatively early in Magnard's career, done at ages of 25 and 30 respectively, so neither of these works are culminating points of Alberic's career.
That said, I am not convinced this is great music. As mentioned, the opening allegro of the 3rd symphony is an ambitious and I think successful effort. But the 3rd loses power as it goes along. I would have a hard time claiming the slow movement (track 7) works, as it is turgid, lengthy and unmemorable. The 1st symphony has its moments. But the music didn't grab me or consistently excite me the way a first-rate composition does. I liked some of it, was lukewarm about others and was indifferent to other sections. The liner notes for whatever reason take a lot of shots at the 1st symphony, but I think it was a decent formative work that show the author has obvious talent and promise. Did he end up putting it all together? I'm uncertain based on the 3rd and will be listening to some later works, especially the late 4th symphony, which seems to have quite a reputation.
Plasson is a consistently good conductor and he and his Toulouse orchestra deliver a solid, effective performance in this EMI disc dating from 1989. You will understand and, taste willing, appreciate Magnard based on the interpretation. Sound is pretty good.