The first opera I saw in Europe — this was 1952, when all Paris smelt of piss and perfume — was a Madame Bovary by one Bondeville, at the Opéra Comique in Paris, and the conductor, who alas didn’t make much impression in this context, was a Parisian of Dutch parentage, a lookalike for Sydney Greenstreet of Maltese Falcon fame named Albert Wolff. Wolff had two gramophonic lives, one for Polydor around 1930 with the Lamoureux Orchestra, the next for Decca after the war when he was many evenings in the pit at the Comique, not far, by the way, from the birthplace of Pierre Monteux – and a wonderful little Alsatian restaurant just down from the Comique where they served mashed potatoes in solemn state. Now I’m not sure at all what a Dutch conductor is supposed to sound like: look at Willem Mengelberg and Eduard van Beinum whose styles were planets apart. But when little Albert Wolff was wheeled along Rue de l’Opéra in his pram he surely picked up a feeling for the sparkle and delicacy we associate with French musicmaking. Beware of such generalizations, of course, but there is truth here, fed by the lighter sound of those idiosyncratic French orchestras Wolff worked with two and three generations ago. Remember when Paris horns sounded like bassoons?

No self-respecting French conductor would speak to himself if he couldn’t turn out a fetching Carmen, and Wolff’s Decca recording thereof — with Janine Micheau and her Pouilly Fumé soprano in the role of Micaela! – is a good place to catalog his assets. Stylish but street-smart, relaxed but vital, sweat-free but drama-immersed, that is Monsieur Wolff conducting Bizet’s masterpiece. Fate enters in the prelude baleful and suave: well, he’s French. Wolff cleverly slows the tempo toward the prelude’s ultimate SNAP, building venom with every beat. The ragamuffins’ chorus couldn’t be more toy-like in its tootliness, and the grownups’ chorus of factory-door Johnnies “murmurant des propos d’amour” is ravishing – later they sound a bit desperate after Carmen winds up her Habanera, the cigarette girls answering with bite-filled sarcasm. A thick layer of doom is spread over the smugglers’ chorus in act 3, the fourth act entr’acte is full of gypsy abandon . . .

From Wolff’s Lamoureux days there’s a Franck Symphony recording that makes nice listening. Smooth, spacious, transparent  — that tuba has his turf, certainement! — and attentive to developmental rumbles and intermittent shadings of gloom, it makes its way with an emotional compactness less heady than a Stokowski or Mengelberg product but holding its own in reaching the heart of the matter. Even without this estimable Carmen and Franck, Wolff would have had ten minutes of fame for his ten-inch LP of Massenet’s beloved dinosaur the Phèdre overture. Neither Monteux nor Paul Paray has improved on the waltzing nostalgia and amorous pizzazz of this vintage Wolff. Ah Wolff, his musicmaking spanned the old Colettian, pre-Pompidouian Paris which that delightful urban genealogist Gillian Tindall writes of so candidly and not unfondly: “hardly changed [from 1914, say, to the late Fifties], merely growing a little shabbier and more cynical . . stagnating economically behind peeling shutters, waiting for its fortunes to be revived by the next turn of history.” This is not to mention the plumbing! Interesting, also, to notice on DVD’s that the gentlemen in the Orchestre National were wearing their hair short as late as 1969.