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Tribute to Madam (Dame Ninette de Valois)
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Checkmate + – complete ballet
Prologue - the Players; Dance of the Red Pawns; Dance of the Four Knights; Entry of the Black Queen;
The Red Knight’s Mazurka; Ceremony of the Red Bishops; Entry of the Red Castles; Entry of the Red King and Queen; The Attack; The Duel; The Black Queen dances; Finale - Checkmate
William BOYCE (1711-79)/Constant LAMBERT (1905-51)

The Prospect Before Us + (complete ballet) in seven scenes and thirty-three numbers.
Gavin GORDON (1901-70)

The Rake’s Progress †(complete ballet)
Prelude; The Reception; The Dancing Lesson (Menuetto galante); The Orgy (Rondo); The Faithful Girl (Loure); The Gambling Den (Gigue); Outside the Prison Gates (Sarabande); The Mad House (Quodlibet)
Geoffrey TOYE (1889-1942)

The Haunted Ballroom* (complete ballet) in three scenes and an interlude.
* with Diane Atherton – soprano; Amanda Floyd (alto); Philip Brown (tenor); Simon Preece (bass)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
+ Recorded in Walthamstow Town Hall; May 2001 † Recorded at Golders Green Hippodrome; May 2001
ASV CD WLS 255 (2 CDs: 151:13)

At last we have the first commercially released recording of Arthur Bliss’s complete Checkmate ballet score - just one benefit of this splendid and fascinating tribute to Dame Ninette de Valois (known affectionately throughout the world of ballet as 'Madam'). The Royal Ballet Sinfonia performs these contrasting scores (all complete) with great affection and dedication. Under the inspired direction of Barry Wordsworth, they make the music really dance.

The whole enterprise is a handsome production. The fulsome booklet notes open with a biographical tribute from David Bintley, Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet. There is a brief chronology of Ninette de Valois’s life embracing all her ballets. Barry Wordsworth adds a further tribute and Noël Goodwin contributes detailed programme notes about all the ballets: their history, conception, choreography, design and stories etc. This review will concentrate only on the music (otherwise it would become too unwieldy) – all the other facets of the ballets are covered in the CD booklet notes.

Bliss had a genuine love of dance (he went on to compose three more ballet scores: Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), Adam Zero (1946) and The Lady of Shalott (1958)). By Ninette de Valois’s invitation, Bliss conceived Checkmate. The strikingly imaginative idea of using a chess game as the subject for a ballet offered great opportunity for heightened drama and visually stunning sets and choreography. It was created for the Vic-Wells Ballet’s first visit to Paris in 1937. The music has a diamond hard brilliance, and is often violent and dissonant. For the combat between the allegorical figures of Love and Death (the actual chess players as seen in the opening prologue dancing to sombre sinister figures), the music is predominantly angular and spiky. There are a few tender moments for the more placatory, but doomed, red chess pieces, notably the Red Knight, before they are duped and relentlessly decimated by their cruel black opponents led by the dangerously seductive Black Queen. The ballet score includes: a brittle, sprightly dance for the Red Pawns as they assemble on the chess board; a chivalric theme for the pairs of Knights as they enter; a feeble measure for the ailing Red King, a cruel seductive dance for the sinister Black Queen, religious music, complete with bell-ringing, for the Bishops, and belligerent mechanical material for the Castles, borrowed from Bliss’s film score for Things to Come. Tremendously exciting music, blistering and malicious, erupts as the victorious Black Queen rounds on the defeated and impotent Red King who surrenders his crown and falls before her. Nothing is as certain as death!

In complete contrast, the atmosphere lightens as the music gives way to the elegance and refinement of the writing of William Boyce (arranged by Constant Lambert) underscoring the 1940 ballet The Prospect Before Us or Pity the Poor Dancers. It brought welcome light relief in the dark days of war. The title and subject-matter was derived from an 18th-century print by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) depicting popular low-life scenes in satirical caricatures with boisterous humour and a larger-than-life sense of the ridiculous. The ballet makes adept use of Boyce’s secular music (played with admirable sparkle and vivacity by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia) including songs for the London pleasure gardens and theatre music for plays. Constant Lambert rescued some of this delightful music from centuries of neglect; he also edited for publication eight Boyce symphonies and some Trio-sonatas. From all of this material he fashioned a patchwork of single dance movements for this de Valois ballet.

Gavin Gordon was inspired by a series of Hogarth paintings to create another smash hit, the de Valois ballet, The Rake’s Progress that was premiered in 1935. It has rarely left the repertoire since. The paintings and the ballet concern the downfall into penury and madness of a wealthy spendthrift and the fate of the country girl he has betrayed. Gordon drew on 18th century dance forms as found in the suites and sonatas of the period. The highly evocative and sardonically ironic music is often ‘Haydnesque’ but with the odd burlesque comic touches. A clever pastiche. There are dances: stately, pompous, arrogant, tenderly romantic, poignant and demented and turbulent for the madhouse scene.

Geoffrey Toye’s haunting waltz, The Haunted Ballroom has always been a favourite on BBC radio light music programmes so the complete ballet music is very welcome. And how imaginative it is in its use of an eerie single SATB voice chorus commentary and its subtle influences of Bax (in evocative misty cor anglais figures), Walton and Eric Coates. Listening to the music of Scene Two it is hard to believe that this was composed in 1934 because it uncannily anticipates popular Second-World-War–period martial strains. This was the ballet that launched the career of Margot Fonteyn (listed then as Margot Fontes) and featured the dramatic agility of Robert Helpmann. Geoffrey Toye (1889-1942) was co-director with Lilian Baylis at Sadlers Wells and co-conductor with Constant Lambert of the ballet performances there. He composed The Haunted Ballroom to a scenario mapped out by himself. It’s about the Masters of Treginnis cursed to dance themselves to death in the gloomy ancestral ballroom by the ghosts of their former womenfolk. After the present Master meets his appointed fate, his son and heir is forced by the ghosts to realise that the curse has now passed to him. David Bintley says in his notes that the choreography of this ballet survives only in tantalising fragments. A revival of this once popular ballet would be most welcome.

A worthy tribute to the grande dame of the world of ballet. This album is noteworthy as being the first recording of Bliss’s complete Checkmate score and for the inclusion of Geoffrey Toye’s haunting and captivating The Haunted Ballroom – again complete. The recorded sound is first class and performances thrilling and poetic.

Ian Lace

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