My early concert-going experience consisted of frequent visits to Leeds Town Hall in the late sixties and early seventies. The acoustic was dire and so were the seats. I could only afford to sit behind the orchestra and it cost just two shillings (10p). This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I could observe many different conductors from the orchestra's point of view. In those days, heaven forbid that any of the prestigious London orchestras should venture north of Barnet, let alone Watford. The only exception was the London Mozart Players. Consequently, my formative years were spent listening to live performances by the Northern Sinfonia, Halle, Royal Liverpool, BBC Northern, Bournemouth and Birmingham orchestras. I was a mere lad and most of the conductors seemed ancient. Barbirolli, Harry Blech, Rudolf Schwarz, Charles Groves, Silvestri and Hugo Rignold. Under Rignold, the CBSO usually sounded listless and seemed to be going through the motions. What a surprise when he was replaced by the unknown-to-me Louis Fremaux. He sported a trendy Beatle-mop and virtually danced on the podium! He seemed young and somehow different to the usual crop of maestros who came to Leeds. He certainly appealed to a younger audience. More than that, the orchestra seemed transformed and gradually improved beyond all recognition. Rattle is credited with elevating the CBSO to international status, but I would suggest that the groundwork was done for him by Fremaux and Rattle acknowledged this by calling the CBSO the best French orchestra in the world. How wonderful then that Warner (EMI) has issued this set. Sadly, it turns out to be a memorial because Fremaux died very recently. The 12 discs are ample evidence that Fremaux was indeed a gifted conductor and a superb orchestral and choral builder. Every single disc has been lovingly remastered (24/96) and they sound terrific. Fremaux toured the orchestra frequently and his recording of Saint-Saens Symphony No.3 is a classic. It was released in conjunction with concert dates all over the country and I caught his performance in Halifax. Fremaux raised the profile of this piece through his recording which gives the classic Charles Munch version a real run for its money. In my view, Fremaux equals Charles Munch in the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz. It is superbly articulated and the orchestral playing is wonderful. There are many other delights in this box of mainly French repertoire. The impressive Berlioz Requiem is supplemented by other shorter works by Berlioz. It seems inconceivable nowadays that EMI would record this massive work twice in quick succession, the other version being by Previn. Robert Tear is the soloist in both. The Massenet pieces sparkle and glow by turn. The engineering for Le Cid is remarkable for 1971. The Walton pieces are marvellously well done and have never been bettered. The remastering does them proud. There isn't a dud disc in the box so snap it up while it's available.
What a treat this boxed set is, bringing together Fremaux's legacy of his tenure with the CBSO. Being a Brummie, born and bred, I was fortunate to have a symphony orchestra virtually on my doorstep. I first started going to the Town Hall for symphony concerts in the early to mid-1960's when listening to live performances of the great symphonic repertoire was quite an eye opener after hearing the great works on my father's radiogram or my little portable record player. It was these live performances that set me on the road to hi-fidelity kit so as to try and match what I heard in the concert hall. I particularly enjoyed attending concerts by visiting guest orchestras and it was these that made me understand that the then CBSO was little more than a competent provincial orchestra. But, boy, how that was to change with the appointment of M. Louis Fremaux.
Anyway, to get back to this boxed set. The remastering, for the greater part, has been very successful. The problem, as always, is the original recording to work from. To my ears, the least successful recordings, technically, are the Berlioz Grande Messe and Saint-Saens 3rd Synphony. The enormous forces used in these works do put a considerable strain on the recording/sound engineers. The venue of the Great Hall at Birmingham University can sound very cathedral-like and whilst this can pass unnoticed at a live venue, it can detract when replaying in a domestic environment But I suppose this is a small niggle when considering the performances as a whole, and which are truly excellent.
I attended the live performance Fremaux first gave at the Town Hall of the Grande Messe. This was literally a mind-blowing experience. I sat in the stalls in my favoured seats, left aisle, about six rows back, and as I eyed the orchestra layout and the significantly augmented orchestra with its 8 timpani, I also saw, positioned high-up either side of the organ, two brass ensembles comprising of five players each. What I had not spotted were two identical ensembles placed high up at the left and right of the gallery, and which were slightly behind me. The Grande Messe was completely new to me and when it came to the Dies Irae in full swing the sheer volume nearly addled my brain. I've never heard anything since, so loud and over such a sustained period. It seemed to envelope me and I couldn't escape it. If there is anything such as ffffff, then this must have been it!
The rest of the recordings do exhibit variations from venue to venue, as one should expect, but the performances are indeed idiomatic and show off the orchestra and Fremaux's interpretations to excellent effect. I won't single out any one performance as all are good and thoroughly enjoyable. However, one disc is certainly worthy of a special mention and this is CD12, and which comprises 5 tracks devoted to Offenbach and 12 tracks of opera and operetta arias sung by Birmingham born tenor David Hughes. He was a popular singer and I remember him from listening to my father's 78's in the 1950's and from his many radio broadcasts for the BBC. What I didn't know was that he became a much admired tenor on the operatic stage in his "second life" as an opera singer. Listening now to these twelve tracks one can only admire his singing talent and what we may have missed owing to his early death. To my ears he has a wonderfully open and neutral voice, nothing like the traditional sound we tend to get with English tenors and which I don't really like. I'd challenge anyone listening to his Nessun Dorma and Lucevan e stelle to guess his singing origins. These are truly operatic in stature, sung in English, but just listen to that voice and diction.
Overall, then, a remarkable legacy of Fremaux's recorded oeuvre with the CBSO, but sadly a set which must now be regarded as In Memoriam.
I love what I've heard of this music so far, having heard it being recommended to BBC Radio 3 listeners yesterday on their "Record Review" show. The recording quality is really stunning, as is the case with many recordings from leading studios of the '60s and ''70s (and even '50s in some cases).
I have a slight issue with the mp3 download that becomes available as an "autorip" when you order the CDs. For one thing, a downloadable "digital booklet" is included but it's missing all details of recording dates, featured artists etc. - all you get is the excellent Richard Bratby notes (in 3 languages). And another thing - of the huge number of tracks (162) the download system only seems to support the download of 100 of the tracks - and it is quite difficult to spot which are missing.
When the CDs arrived it was clear that there's much more in the printed booklet than in the digital version. I'd therefore suggest buying the CD version of this excellent package rather than the mp3s, even though they are a few pounds cheaper
Fremaux was tremendous in Birmingham, transforming the CBSO long before Rattle. I heard them many times under him at Leeds Town Hall, as a teenager, and superb they always were. Fremaux left rather suddenly, and was missed, though Simon Rattle, who replaced him, was also a wonderful musician. These EMI recordings are all sonically excellent, and many performances here are first choices. Fremaux was masterly in French repertoire, of course, but everything here is very fine. His Berlioz Requiem is excellent, well played, well sung, superbly recorded. The only blot, and blot it is, is Robert Tear, straining and heaving horribly in the great tenor solo. I can heartily recommend this boxed set, which has given me much pleasure since I bought it.