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Léon (Ludwig) MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote - Ballet in Three Acts - original version (1869)
Sophia National Opera Orchestra/Nayden Todorov
Rec. National Palace of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1st to 7th April, 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557065-66[137:01]

Don Quixote, the great novel by Miguel Cervantes, has inspired a large artistic output through the years, both musical and otherwise, the most familiar to the English speaker being (probably) The Man of La Mancha. This two disc recording of the three act ballet written by the Austrian/Russian composer Léon Minkus and recorded by the pre-eminent opera and theater orchestra in Bulgaria, the Sofia National Opera Orchestra, predates the American musical by almost a century, and bears only a passing resemblance even in terms of the chronology of the storyline. There are several scenes of which people who know only the musical would have no knowledge. However, the ballet is a delightful work, if not a particularly well-known one.

Compositionally, there are fifty-nine pieces in the overall work, divided into three acts, with a diversity of intentions exhibited. There are minuets, jigs, marches, and waltzes galore. The pieces are largely fun and light-hearted, as would be appropriate to a comedy such as Don Quixote. The performance is exquisite, and the recording quality superb. Compositionally, this is obviously intended for dance accompaniment with percussion prevalent in so many of the pieces. The work itself is very much influenced by other Russian and French composers of the era, with the Spanish modalities essentially absent. Considering the audience that Minkus was writing for, this is to be expected. His use of cellos as solo instruments off and on throughout is notable, and his melodies are fun and entertaining.

As a performance, it would be hard to imagine a better one. I listened to the recording repeatedly, both to become better acquainted with the work as a whole and for simple enjoyment, and was taken with just how flawless it seems to be. There are many opportunities where a lesser orchestra would have betrayed itself. One instance is the Scene change in Act II (tr. 4 on CD2). Here three or four instruments play unison lines with no accompaniment and Todorov changes tempos constantly. Such highly exposed sections test the quality of the musicians employed. These are musicians of the highest caliber.

The engineering is also very good. The recording quality is clean and bright, well balanced, and fairly indicative of what the listener would encounter in live performance; a far more difficult feat than it may initially seem. It is as common to find an orchestral work where the percussion section has disappeared, or where the basses are not anywhere to be found, or where the sound has been made overly dark through ill-judged microphone placement. The sound engineers who worked on this recording obviously know their business, and the listener can tell the difference.

All told, this is an exquisite work, and one that I would likely have never been exposed to were it not to have come across my desk for review. If I may dream an impossible dream, I would wish that I could expose every lover of ballet, classical music, and lover of the story of Don Quixote to this recording. The Sofia National Opera Orchestra, along with Nayden Todorov, has produced a gem and should be proud.

Patrick Gary


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