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Alan Becker
American Record Guide, July 2011

I am always wary of what purports to be a complete recording. This one includes all the solo piano music to be found in Par Setrak’s set for Chant Du Monde (not reviewed in ARG) and also adds the two suites from the incidental music to L’Arlesienne. That’s more than a half-hour of additional music, and the excellent notes by the pianist tell us that they are heard in Bizet’s own transcriptions.

Severus is a graduate of the Berlin University of Arts and the Moscow Conservatory and now serves as Director of the Conservatoire du Musique et de Dance in France. In this, her first solo recording, she impresses us not only with her daring choice of repertory, but with her lovely tone and more than adequate technique.

The Nocturne in F could be a dead ringer for a newly discovered Chopin Nocturne. It is played with even more expression than Setrak brings to it, and would make a superb encore for any recital. The fairly substantial Variations Chromatiques are more smoothly executed than Setrak, though only fitfully inspired as a musical achievement.

As you might expect, all of these pieces are relatively short and breath the air of the salon. There is little one would identify with Bizet. On first hearing they show not only the influence of Chopin, but of Grieg, Schumann, Moszkowski, Mendelssohn, and sometimes even Chabrier. Like those composers, most of this music is very pretty and digests easily with its considerable charm and grace.

The Arlesienne Suites work reasonably well for piano solo, with the second suite slightly more interesting in pianistic terms…

Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, June 2011

Bizet’s chamber music works are fairly well known, yet one does not usually associate him with solo piano music. On the evidence of these two discs, he produced quite a few such works—even without the keyboard versions of the Arlesienne suites. There is a great variety of forms and moods on these two discs, and in Julia Severus Bizet enjoys more than a sympathetic performer, for in addition to her impressive credentials, she comes across as a major interpretive and probing artist of international calibre. What came as a bit of a shock to me was that Bizet died so young! One thinks of poor Pergolesi, or even Mozart and Schubert dying before their time, but Music would have no doubt been further enriched had Bizet lived beyond 37 or 38 years!

James L. Zychowicz
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Familiar to modern audiences as a composer of operas and orchestral music, Georges Bizet also left a number of piano pieces, and the recent release by Naxos of all his works in this genre is a welcome addition to the discography. This recording gives a sense of the composer’s facility on the instrument. Of particular interest are the early pieces in which Bizet’s style shows the influence of Chopin, appropriately in the Nocturne and Valse collected here. The fluid melismas against the more sustained bass suggest Bizet’s familiarity with the idiom, and the pianist Julia Severus captures the style well in her performances. With the sets of character pieces, though, Bizet’s piano music seems more individual, with turns of phrase and touches of harmony that suggest, at times, the mature style that he expressed in his operas Les pecheurs du perle and Carmen. In fact, the piece “La bohémienne” conveys a sense of the two first-act arias of Carmen. With Venise the music sounds familiar since it is a transcription of Nadir’s aria Je crois entendre encore from Les pecheurs, given here an effective reading by Severus, who clearly knows the opera and also voices this piece to give a full, effective sound.

Other familiar music includes the composer’s own piano versions of the music found in the two suites from L’arlésienne. These pieces are effective because the colorful dissonances and modal shifts seem more prominent without the rich scoring that Bizet gave the pieces when he orchestrated them. Severus here is good to bring out details clearly. The famous Pastorale, for example, seems fresh in the version for piano, and the pianistic characteristics of the Farandole suggest, at times, the rich keyboard textures associated with Liszt. These pieces are also worth comparing to the more familiar orchestral versions, to gain a sense of Bizet the pianist, an image that Severus conveys effectively in her solid and often extroverted performances of these works.

While various piano music by Bizet has been available on several recordings, such as the discs by Peter Vanhove and Riccardo Zadra, Julia Severus’s performances of the composer’s collected works in this genre have much to offer because of the range of idioms involved. Severus captures well the focus of the short character pieces and is also expressive with the florid lines of the Nocturne in F. Other pieces are attractive for the qualities Severus brings out, as occurs with the Variations chromatiques, and a sample of both discs offers a sense of the styles Bizet explored in these works for piano. The sound is good, in a technically solid release—it is also useful to have the various parts of the sets of pieces separately banded for immediate access.

MusicWeb International, March 2011

This music was reviewed here last autumn, when Naxos made it available as a download. It is not quite Bizet’s complete piano music—if any of it is more widely known, it is the work not featured here, the Jeux d’Enfants for piano duet. Nor is it quite the complete music for solo piano, as stated (in fact, the back inlay title is ‘Complete Music for Piano’); missing are the alternative versions of the two Caprices, and the many arrangements—the liner notes say around 200—for both piano solo and duet that Bizet made of other composers’ music: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for example.

Most of the pieces on this double disc are miniatures. The two Caprices, the Four Preludes, the Waltz in C, the Thème Brillant, Venise, Romance Without Words, and Marine are all around three minutes or less. As might therefore be expected, these are not profound works, but they are very pleasing to the ear. In fact, the latter three are both memorable and rather beautiful, in a Chopin or Mendelssohn way, for all their brevity. Venise will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers. It is also worth bearing in mind that Bizet was still in his early teens when he wrote much of this music.

Then there is a group of slightly longer works—the two Nocturnes, the Chasse Fantastique and the Grand Concert Waltz in E flat. At between four and seven minutes, these are noticeably fleshier pieces, and far from easy—the Chasse Fantastique is a delicious whirlwind of notes that could have been written by Alkan. Signs of the older, more mature composer are much in evidence—Bizet’s reputation as an outstanding pianist was already established.

Finally, there are the longer works, lasting ten minutes and up—the Three Musical Sketches, the Chromatic Concert Variations, Magasin des Familles, Songs of the Rhine and the famous Arlésienne Suites. The Songs of the Rhine, Bizet’s longest work for solo piano, is a set of six Schumannesque vignettes based on poems by Joseph Méry. No.3, ‘La Bohémienne’, and no.5, ‘Les Confidences’, are particularly lovely. Magasin des Familles is not Bizet’s title, but the name of a journal in which the three works collected together here first appeared in 1865. The three are: Méditation Réligieuse, Romance Without Words (not the same as the one listed separately) and Casilda (Polka Mazurka). All are in C, but are otherwise unrelated. The first two are reminiscent again of Mendelssohn, the third, not surprisingly, of Chopin. The Chromatic Concert Variations are the most dramatic work on the disc. Composed in 1868, this is a set of 14 variations with a coda that Bizet found considerable pride in. There is much of novelty and interest here, if not quite the profundity it may have aspired to.

Rounding off each of the discs is an Arlésienne Suite. On their own these recordings constitute an excuse to buy this release. These are Bizet’s own transcriptions, and come across surprisingly well ‘stripped down’ on the piano—at the very least, it is a treat to hear Bizet’s magnificent tunes in a change of colour.

Julia Severus, in her first solo recording for Naxos, treats all of Bizet’s piano music with the respect befitting a great composer, and is equal to the virtuosic demands he often makes. These piano works might not be Bizet’s finest legacy, but his musicality and that of Severus illuminate these two discs.

Finally, there is a decent essay on Bizet’s piano music by Severus in the CD booklet. She also produced the disc; the sound quality is very good (allowing for occasional minor ‘noises off’), although the piano is rather closely miked.

James Manheim, March 2011

A collection of Bizet’s piano music is a bit more desirable as a purchase than instrumental music by other composers known primarily for opera; Bizet was a fine pianist and made money through his keyboard skills while he was struggling as an opera composer. He wasn’t happy about it, however, and his complete compositions as a group reveal his ambivalent attitude. Some of the pieces on this two-disc set are student works, dating as far back as Bizet’s early teens in the case of the Romance sans paroles (CD 2, track 11). Much of this early music reveals debts to Chopin or, in the case of the Variations chromatiques de concert, Beethoven. Other works seem to have been written for Bizet’s own use, and they’re not fundamentally different from the piano productions of lesser composers. The two suites from L’Arlésiennes, arranged by Bizet, do not survive the transition to the keyboard terribly well; they’re purely commercial productions. The Grande valse de concert in E flat major would be hard to pick out as Bizet’s. All this said, there are a few pieces, from later in the composer’s career, where Bizet applied himself to the task of transferring his distinctive voice to the piano, and these, above all: the Chants du Rhin, Venise, and the Chasse fantastique, all on disc 2. These contain the color and passion that made Carmen such a perennial favorite, and lovers of that opera will find some pearls here. Pianist Julia Severus handles the variety of idioms with ease. She contributes her own informative booklet notes, which are given in English, French, and German. No translator is credited; Severus was born and trained in Germany and now teaches in France, so perhaps she is responsible for all three versions.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

We forget that Georges Bizet was the one of the most outstanding pianists produced by the Paris Conservatoire during the mid-19th century. Indeed he was expected to enjoy a major career as a concert artist, but while he continued to teach the piano, his whole life was to be placed at the disposal of composition. It was the world of opera he was most anxious to invade, and most of his piano music comes from his teenage years while studying the instrument, seven of the sixteen original scores being written before his fourteenth birthday. There was a brief return to the genre while in his thirties, the Variations chromatiques de concert, Chants du Rhin and Chasse fantastique from that period all owing much to the combined influences of Beethoven and Liszt, and are well worth preserving in the piano repertoire. Many of the remaining scores were ‘salon pieces’ owing a debt to Chopin and aimed at creating uncomplicated pleasures. That he did value their melodic content is measured in his later use of ideas from Trois Esquisses musicales in the opera, Carmen, while he goes the other way around when an aria from The Pearl Fishers was rescued to form the delicate Venise, the opera having been described by the composer as an ‘honorable, brilliant failure’. Fleshing-out the two discs we have Bizet’s piano adaptation of the two orchestral suites from the incidental music to the play, L’Arlesienne. They are rather pale alternatives once you hear the original version. The founder of the Aurora Duo and Quartet, the young German-born pianist, Julia Severus, conveys her enjoyment of the music in nicely paced performances, Severus acting as her own producer in attractive sound.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, September 2010

Julia Severus has carefully and cleverly programmed her two discs here. Each begins with lighter fare, progresses through a smart alternation of serious and slight, and ends with one of the L’Arlésienne suites, arranged for piano by the composer. The two nocturnes on CD 1 are reminiscent more of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words than anything by Chopin, and I prefer the lovely cantabile F major to the less-inspired example in D. There are several waltzes bathed in the perfume of the salons of Paris. The C major waltz really is a clever delight with some surprises in store, although the “Grand valse de concert” does not have a main tune nearly as hummable as Moszkowski’s work by the same title. The three Esquisses include a “Ronde turque” which impressed me as sounding quite a lot more authentically Turkish than almost any other western piece bearing that title.

The most dramatic work on CD 1 is Variations chromatiques, the chromatic passages of which serve up high drama and empty virtuosity in equal measure before the piece turns into a rather pedestrian, wandering “happy romantic” piece near the middle. An ominous ending, consciously imitative of Beethoven, barely manages to save it. The four Preludes are refreshing and nicely varied in mood, although they add up to just three minutes’ worth of music. The two Caprices are rather longer and I actually found the first quite interesting in its spicy blend of minor mode, sly attitude and stealthy rhythms. Again, think of Moszkowski, or perhaps even of a Chopin mazurka. Both Caprices sound as if they are just waiting to be orchestrated; by contrast, the first L’Arlésienne suite has been de-orchestrated here, and the beginning of the introduction does sound rather naked. In fact, it sounds like a fugue subject waiting to be put into counterpoint. The rest of the suite goes better; indeed, the minuet and carillons are quite successful as piano pieces.

The second CD opens with the longest work in the set: Chants du Rhin, a series of tone-pictures with titles like “Les rêves” which lasts for a little over twenty minutes. Even this work manages to be cutesy; “La bohémienne” is like a Chopin waltz composed by an inebriate. I think Julia Severus takes the opening movement a bit too quickly, but the others are better—“Les confidences” in particular is a well-voiced song begging for words. The most striking moment of the Magasin des familles comes near the end of the “Méditation réligieuse,” when Bizet caps off the piece with some unexpected, indeed totally out of place, fortissimo chords. Better is the second L’Arlésienne suite, which succeeds as a piano piece all the way through, especially the dance episode in the middle of the Pastorale and the dazzling passagework in the center of the final Farandole.

A few miniatures fill out the remainder of the set, all of them from essentially the same “songs without words” mold. The only Venetian characteristic I can detect in “Venise” is its melancholy mood, something like (one might say, creatively) a city reflecting that its best centuries are behind it. A “Romance sans paroles” is rather sans interest. The surprisingly Latin American “Marine” hints that Julia Severus would probably be a great performer of samba, ragtime and composers like Gershwin and Ernesto Nazareth.

I was surprised to realize that Bizet had even written piano music, so this set counts as a pleasant discovery. That some of the works, particularly the waltz in C, nocturne in F, “Marine”, and a few excerpts from L’Arlésienne, are actually very good makes this an even better surprise. Julia Severus is reliable and sensitive to the music’s lyricism and supplies her own well-written liner-notes, and the recorded sound is warm and close. This piano music is generally not too special—in fact none of it is “special” except maybe the sudden Brazilian turn of “Marine”—but all of it is, at a minimum, rather pretty, and “rather pretty” is a good thing to be. If you are fond of rather pretty piano music, here are two discs full of it waiting to be heard.

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