Jean Fournet’s father was a distinguished flautist and a respected musician, who taught his son the flute with remarkable results: by the age of fifteen Jean was playing second flute in the Orchestra of the Théâtre des Arts in his home town of Rouen. After studying with Gaston Blacquart he entered the flute class of Philippe Gaubert at the Paris Conservatoire, and then that of Marcel Moyse, gaining the first prize for flute playing at the end of his second year. Then, while studying composition he found himself in the conducting class of his old teacher Gaubert: once again he took the first prize and quickly entered the world of what the French call the théâtre lyrique which covers musical comedy, operetta and opera, and which proved to be an excellent training ground for the young conductor. His first appointment was at Rouen in 1938, and two years later he was conducting at Marseilles. As well as appearing in the French provinces, Fournet conducted the major French symphony orchestras in concerts and radio broadcasts; he also taught conducting at the École Normale in Paris from 1944 onwards.
Fournet’s international career took off in 1950 when he was invited at short notice to replace Eduard van Beinum as the conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in a series of concerts of the orchestral music of Ravel; he subsequently became a welcome guest in Holland. Following a stint as chief conductor of the Opéra-Comique, Paris, from 1953 to 1957, Fournet was chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, based at Hilversum, from 1961 to1973 and of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1968 to 1974. In addition he appeared as a guest conductor throughout Europe, North and South America, and in Israel and Japan where in 1958 he led the first performance in Tokyo of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He conducted the French repertoire regularly at the Chicago Lyric Opera from 1965 and appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York leading Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila in 1987. He took up a permanent position in France in 1974 when he became chief conductor of the Orchestre de l’Île-de-France, a post he held until 1982. In 1962 he ended his association with the École Normale, but continued to teach through his participation from 1966 onwards in the conducting classes organised by Dutch Radio at Hilversum.
Jean Fournet’s conducting was remarkable for its innate understanding of the French style, reflecting his own love of this repertoire. His interpretations of French music possessed a fine balance between passion and restraint not equalled by many other conductors; they were also notable for an unobtrusively high level of technical polish. During the 78rpm era he made records for several labels, including for French Columbia Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and Grande Messe des morts with the Orchestre Symphonique de Radio Paris, readings which remain highly distinguished; in addition he set down Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with Menuhin, and the same composer’s Cello Concerto with André Navarra, both with the Colonne Orchestra. Following his successful appearances in Holland he recorded extensively for the Dutch electronics company Philips: notable recordings on this label included complete accounts of Charpentier’s Louise, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Fauré’s Requiem, the Ravel piano concertos and d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français, the latter two with the pianist Jean Doyen. He also recorded several shorter works with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra for Philips, notably the two Suites from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. With the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Fournet recorded exceptional discs of orchestral works by Debussy (La Mer, Printemps, Ibéria and Nocturnes) and by Franck (Psyché, Le Chasseur maudit, Les Éolides, Les Djinns, and Rédemption) for Supraphon. Later recordings included fine performances of music by Dukas (La Péri, L’Apprenti sorcier, the Symphony in C) and by Chausson (the Symphony in B flat) with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra for the Japanese label Denon. The Q Disc label has also issued an eight-CD set of Fournet’s broadcasts with the Netherlands Philharmonic Radio Orchestra, which provides an excellent overview of this conductor’s interpretations.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).