This is another invaluable SONY budget box, gathering together rare repertoire from a rather rare conductor, Jacques Mercier. SONY is not at all forthcoming about of recording origins (other than simple recording dates and locations). I have found that most of this material was recorded by French RCA in the 90s, while the Roussel and Schmitt discs were originally from an obscure label, Conseil Regional France, distributed by MPO France. Some of these discs have been available in the U.S., reissued on RCA Red Seal; others have been sporadically issued on RCA France box sets - all in variable sound. Most of it has been long out of print and expensive to try to obtain, either on the used market or imported from Europe.
I am not an expert on the majority of music contained within this box - mostly French choral/vocal works. Arias, Requiems, Cantatas, etc. from composers such as Saint-Saens, Bizet, Bruneau and Debussy, are sure to delight lovers of this type of music, and all are works I will want to explore as time permits.
However, what drew me to this set are the 3 discs of (mostly) orchestral works, which have been very hard to find elsewhere. Indeed, this entire box costs much less than the single disc of Roussel Orchestral Suites, which has only been available as a rare, collector's import. Thus I snagged up this box for that disc alone!
And it is a real find. Disc 3 contains the most rare of Roussel orchestral output, in splendid performances and lovely sound. Disc 4 gives us the more common Bacchus et Ariane Suites 1 and 2 (I'm not sure why they are still labeled as "suites", as both combined include essentially the entire ballet), plus various songs for solo voice and orchestra. Mercier is a natural in this music and his orchestra plays very well indeed. The ballet is not as well recorded as the companion Roussel set of Suites (recorded at different sessions) - it lacks a bit of spaciousness and amplitude in climaxes, and the acoustic sounds drier and slightly artificial.
Another real find is on Disc 6, which contains three orchestral suites from the film score, Salammbo, by Florent Schmitt. This disc has been available elsewhere and might be found on some collectors' shelves. But for those not familiar, it is gloriously and richly orchestrated rhapsodic orchestral music - grandiose in scope, glitteringly scored, with a chorus adding extra color in two short sections. It sounds typical of this composer (and reminiscent of classic, epic film scores such as those from Rozsa's Ben-Hur and King of Kings). But in this context it also reminds one very much of the orchestral music of Roussel. It is very well recorded.
I have two complaints of the box, however. First, and it's a major one - for a collection of choral works, it is unforgivable that SONY did not include a booklet with text/lyric translations. This is a serious impediment for listeners such as I who are not familiar with these works. Second, while it is nice to have a modern recording of Debussy's complete Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien, this recording includes the shockingly intrusive and completely unnecessary narration (in French). It wouldn't be so bad if the narrator simply spoke in between sections; but - no!; the score calls for him to often interject over the music and even to shout over the full orchestra and choir at climatic moments. Just when one settles in to a few minutes of glorious Debussy music, suddenly without warning the narrator screams and shouts into the room. It is jolting, unnerving and completely ruinous to the music. Charles Munch recorded this work back in 1956 with the Boston Symphony for RCA; and while he included some narration, I do not recall this much of it overlaying the music. This is some of the most innovative and glorious of all Debussy's compositions and I would gladly have paid more for this box set to have an additional disc included which contained the music without narration. (The narrator was almost certainly recorded separately and interpolated on later by the engineers, thus making it very easy to omit). I also would have gladly paid more for this set to have a booklet included which provided translations to assist one in getting to know the large quantity of quite unfamiliar choral works contained here.
With those two caveats, I can recommend this box set to those who know and enjoy these French choral works, and also to those interested in the 3 discs of orchestral works, especially considering its low asking price. The remaining 7 discs are surely worthy of exploration. If only SONY had seen fit to provide useful documentation to help us in that endeavor.