When the young Simon Rattle conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1978, he described it as “the best French orchestra in the world”. That was the work of Louis Frémaux, who has passed away on 20 March at the age of 95 and whose complete recorded legacy with the CBSO can be explored on a 12-CD 'Icon' box set to be released on 21 April, comprising recordings remastered from the original analogue tapes and digitized in full HD 24BIT/96kHz.
Frémaux’s arrival, in the CBSO’s 50th anniversary season, brought a bigger, more outward-looking artistic vision for the orchestra — the start of a process that would lead in 1980 to the historic appointment of the 25-year-old Simon Rattle as Frémaux’s successor. And Frémaux effectively created the CBSO’s discography, making some 16 LP recordings before his sudden and unexpected departure from Birmingham in 1978.
Louis Frémaux studied at the Conservatoire in Valenciennes, and his musical career was interrupted three times by war: he was active in the Résistance during the occupation of France and later served in the Foreign Legion in Indochina and Algeria, being decorated for gallantry on two separate occasions. Prince Rainier of Monaco intervened in person to have Frémaux discharged from the military, and in his decade at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Frémaux built an international reputation, as well as making some 30 recordings.
The CBSO’s then chairman Denis Martineau was captivated by his flair. “I felt we had to get the best man we possibly could”, he remembered. He saw in Frémaux “a man who would build up the orchestra; he would build up our audience, especially with young people; he would attract recording companies”.
Frémaux brought to Birmingham an invigorating podium style. “He stood very upright, with a straight back, very light on his feet — almost dancing — never crouching, but just leaning towards players or sections when needed”, says David Russell, a cellist in the orchestra. “His beat was very clear and precise, and he used his hands and baton to convey this clarity and musicality.”
In rehearsal, he wasted few words, and he brought the same energy and directness to his larger-scale artistic plans. By June 1970 the CBSO was recording for EMI (now Warner Classics) again for the first time since 1947.
Central to Frémaux’s vision was the creation of a professional-standard symphonic choir, and in 1973 he founded the CBSO Chorus: 120 singers, all aged under 45. Elaine Russell, who joined the CBSO Chorus during its first major recording project, Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts, remembers that “it was very fresh and new. It was Louis’s baby, he’d pushed for it, and he wanted it to be the best it could — he wanted a clear, young sound. We knew, as a chorus, that he’d chosen us individually. There was always that edge of excitement.”
As early as 1972, Edward Greenfield of The Guardian noticed the change in the orchestra’s sound: “Under Frémaux they combine a purity of intonation which metropolitan orchestras might envy, with a fluid and spontaneous style of phrasing.”
It’s no great surprise that Frémaux’s recorded legacy with the CBSO focuses overwhelmingly on the French repertoire that featured prominently in his Birmingham programmes. But it also acknowledges his affection for the music of Walton, and his commitment to contemporary music in Birmingham.
Among his greatest achievements on record is the stunning account of Berlioz’s monumental Grande Messe des morts, recorded (originally in quadrophonic sound) in April 1975 in the cathedral-like Great Hall of Birmingham University.
It’s a tribute to the producer Brian Culverhouse that, although recorded in the same highly resonant acoustic, the colourful Massenet suites that made up Frémaux and the CBSO’s first purely orchestral disc together in April 1971 come across with such clarity and sparkle. There’s an irresistible joie de vivre about these performances — a conductor and orchestra in the first flush of their partnership — that carries over into their luminous 1974 version of Bizet’s rarely-heard Roma.
And there’s an unmistakable meeting of kindred musical spirits, too, in the concertos by Lalo and Saint-Saëns with the great French cellist Paul Tortelier and his son Yan Pascal, then a superlative solo violinist. Frémaux seems to catch Paul’s unbuckled, sometimes headstrong playing on the upswing. Their unforgettably ardent and stylish Saint-Saëns First Cello Concerto has become a classic. As has the 1974 recording of Saint- Saëns’s Third Symphony. If any single work became a CBSO / Frémaux “signature”, it was this one. Together Frémaux and the CBSO would perform the “Organ” symphony 23 times in public between 1972 and 1978. This recording, originally made in quadrophonic sound in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, was immediately hailed as a landmark for the vividness of its orchestral sound and the grandeur and sweep of the performance.
One of the finest pre-digital recordings of Saint-Saëns’s masterpiece, four decades later it’s still thrillingly fresh. The Carnival of the Animals and Bizet’s sunny Symphony in C once again show Frémaux’s inimitable lightness of touch.
There’s surely no more spirited recorded version, too, of Litolff’s famous Scherzo; this and Fauré’s Ballade making very different showcases for the incomparable and muchmissed John Ogdon.
Frémaux’s 1977 Fauré Requiem was another much-cherished choral project. Frémaux uses the larger, richer 1900 scoring, and this is a performance of largescale vision. Nonetheless, Gramophone found it “a reading that emphasises the devout quietness of the piece”.
Walton was delighted with Frémaux's recording of his Gloria and Te Deum and thanked the conductor personally for “the splendid results”. The recordings of the late John McCabe’s Notturni ed alba and Second Symphony, meanwhile, offer only a glimpse of Frémaux’s work on behalf of contemporary music in Birmingham. Frémaux and the CBSO had premiered Notturni ed alba at Worcester Cathedral in the summer of 1970 and later performed it with Jill Gomez at the 1975 Proms; the recording captures a shared sense of discovery and wonder.
Frémaux was building an orchestra that could play all music, light or serious, with precision, colour, commitment and — above all — life. “Whatever Louis conducted, it always seemed to have a certain delight and excitement about it”, remembers the BBC producer Richard Butt. And from operetta lollipops to the Berlioz Requiem, that’s what Frémaux’s recorded legacy with the CBSO overwhelmingly conveys.
Louis Frémaux - ICON: Complete recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony ORchestra - is out 21 April, 2017.