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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Ballet music

Alcina (HWV 34) [25:47]
Terpsichore (HWV 8b) [11:10]
Il Pastor fido (HWV 8c) [10:22]
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Recorded in March 1984 at St Luke’s Church, London DDD
WARNER ELATUS 2564-60335-2 [47:21]


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Dance and ballet have always played an important role in Western music. From the 15th century on, dance masters were attached to Italian courts. They wrote ‘balli’ to be performed at social occasions. After some time these ‘balli’ developed into stories, mostly based on subjects from classical mythology. During the 16th and 17th century the ‘court ballet’ developed into something which reflected the wealth and reputation of kings and princes. These ballets were mostly used to pay tribute to the monarch, symbolised by a mythological character.

From Italy the court ballet spread to France where it was an important part of operas, in particular during the reign of Louis XIV, who never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his own abilities as a dancer. It also went to England where it took the form of the ‘masque’.

Although ballets were associated with a story, the dancers didn’t play parts like actors. They concentrated on the technique of dancing and the virtuoso character of the dances. Until the early 18th century only men danced, using masks to portray female characters. But at that time female dancers made their entrance. They displayed great virtuosity in their dancing, but didn’t pay much attention to expressing a character.

The French dancer Marie Sallé (1711-1756) was an exception. She broke new ground by miming her role and dancing without a masque. During the season 1734-35 she stayed in London and appeared in all Handel’s operas. Handel wrote his ballet music for her. She danced as a man in Alcina in 1735. The fact that these dances appeared in a dramatic work is reflected by their character, in particular the contrasting dances in the third act: ‘Entrée des Songes agréables’ (pleasant dreams) and ‘Entrée des Songes funestes’ (fatal dreams) and the following ‘Combat’ (battle) between them.

Il Pastor fido, a ‘pastoral conversation’, was first performed in 1712 in London, without great success. In 1734, at the opening of the season, it was performed in a strongly revised version: dances were added in all acts, and a complete new act preceded it: Terpsichore. Marie Sallé took part in it as Muse of the Dance and Lyric Poetry. The music is different, less dramatic than that of Alcina.

This recording of the ballet music from Alcina, Terpsichore and Il Pastor fido was first released in 1984 on vinyl. When I listened to it at that time I liked it a lot. I hadn’t heard it for quite a long time, so I was curious to find out whether I still would appreciate it. In some ways I do: the quality of the playing and the recording is excellent, and the performance is never boring. But right now I am more aware of its flaws. I would prefer a little more differentiation in articulation and dynamics within phrases and more flexibility in the overall approach. Sometimes the playing is harsh and emphatic. The effect is that some dances don't swing as much as they should. The 'gigue' from Terpsichore is a good example.

The contrasts between the 'pleasant' and the 'fatal dreams' in Act 3 of Alcina could have been stronger, in particular the battle between the two.

But I am grateful for the fact that this recording of music, which isn't that often performed, is available on CD again at budget price, and I am sure that many of those who have enjoyed the recording when it was first released, will still like it.

Johan van Veen



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