Cascavelle's Orchestre Colonne: 130 ans au service de la musique is a high-quality historical package devoted to a remarkable French orchestra, founded in 1873 by conductor Edouard Colonne for the primary purpose of providing exposure for French music. Well more than a century later this orchestra is still going strong, even though it is not attached to a city and bear, like the Hallé Orchestra, the name of a founder rather than that of a community. This set includes examples of recordings ranging from a handful of Pathé discs made of the orchestra in 1908 and 1909 under its founder -- who died in 1910 -- up to a stereo recording made in 1960 under Pierre Dervaux. Along the way, Gabriel Pierné (in 1931 and 1934), Paul Paray (in 1948-1949), and Jean Fournet (in 1947-1948) are also heard at the helm of Colonne. Conspicuously missing are recordings made during the notorious Vichy Government of the Nazi period; François Ruhlmann, Roger Desormière, and Gaston Poulet all made records with the Colonne during this time, and the orchestra itself had been renamed for the departed Gabriel Pierné, who had died in 1937. This would prove a temporary situation, and certainly does not represent a stable period in the orchestra's history; under the circumstances perhaps it was best to set this period aside.
The first disc ends with Colonne's own Pathés, which sound surprisingly good, although Pathé recorded its discs with a giant master cylinder that was then dubbed to a disc. This process sometimes leads to a clanky audio artifact, thankfully not in evidence here; however, another artifact -- a mysterious moan that sounds like a mix between a wounded lion and a cow's moo -- almost claims the Mozart "Turkish March" arrangement; you begin to wonder what is going to "win," the orchestra or the recording device. However, the "Marche Hongroise" from Berlioz's Le Damnation de Faust is authoritative -- Colonne knew Berlioz well and modeled his orchestra to Berlioz's specs, and even though it is played by a reduced band you really get the sense that this may be how the piece sounded to Berlioz himself.
The Pierné selections -- he made at least 73 recordings in the period 1927-1934, a vast and undocumented legacy -- precede the Colonne-led pieces on the first disc. Pierné proves a superb conductor with energy to burn and an innate sense of what makes an orchestra sound exciting. His take on Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is shaped in a way that's totally unique, perhaps closest to Stokowski's earlier interpretations than any other, but belonging to a completely different tradition than what we are familiar with in the twenty first century. Also included is Pierné's late ballet Giration, a charming, witty, and substantial entry in the canon of neo-classicism. For Paul Paray, his 1949 recording of Dukas' ballet La Péri must've seemed like vindication; he had been Pierné's successor, but was not recorded with Colonne at all before the Vichy government came into power and decided not to cooperate. Of the recordings on this set, perhaps Paray's Dukas sounds most like a "modern" orchestra and recording; although it is a little crispy, it is full-bodied, and as Paray did not record La Péri with Detroit, we can be thankful for this. Although the sound is a little muddier, Paray's other contribution is an electrifying 1948 performance of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor with Jeanne-Marie Darré at the piano, and as you might expect, it's on fire. Under the direction of Jean Fournet, André Messager's ballet suite for Les deux pigeons is a far more interesting piece than you might think it would be, as is the D minor Scherzo by Edouard Lalo; Fournet seems to have inherited some of Pierné's flair for energy and excitement. However, if so, he wasn't consistent at it; the overture to Fauré's opera Pénelopé is a little workmanlike and very slow to get off the ground. Inexplicably, the first disc opens with the Pierre Dervaux recording from 1960 of Ravel's Rhapsodie espagnole, a spit-clear stereo recording of the Orchestra Colonne in shambles. It contains many of the usual defects associated with French orchestras -- poor coordination and poor intonation -- and compared to some of the glories found elsewhere in this set, obviously does not represent the Colonne on a good day.
So, what's the final word on Cascavelle's Orchestre Colonne: 130 ans au service de la musique? It's like the whole history of anything; there's some good, some not so good, and a decent measure of great in this package. The transfers are carefully done and deliver the goods without too much of a clampdown from an audio perspective; no swishy, constricted digitization is heard here. You could have left off Fournet, Dervaux, and the two latter Edouard Colonne tracks to have only the great, but then the package wouldn't have been comprehensive as it is, and that's a plus, although an alternative to the Dervaux would also have been an improvement. If you like historical orchestral recordings and/or any of these conductors, Cascavelle's Orchestre Colonne: 130 ans au service de la musique will be a treat.