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Royal Ballet Sinfonia: Tribute to Sir Fred
André MESSAGER (1853-1929), arr. Lanchbery Les Deux Pigeons (1886) (complete ballet) [62:18]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886), arr. Constant LAMBERT Dante Sonata [15:54]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1972) Madame Chrysanthème (1955) [44:17]
Francois COUPERIN (1698-1733), arr. Gordon JACOB Harlequin in the Street (complete ballet) [28:52]
Jonathan Higgins, piano
Judith Harris, mezzo-soprano
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
Recorded on 7-9 and 14-15 July 2003 in Sony Music Studios, London. DDD
ASV SANCTUARY CD WLS 273 [78:12+71:09]

This review is folllowed by a recording session report.

A musical tribute to a choreographer is an interesting concept. While the music selected is obviously of incredible importance to the choreographer, it only becomes associated with him through an ephemeral, transitory experience of production on stage. This album, a collection of four ballets either choreographed or re-choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988) contains works that would normally not coexist on a musical program, but which can be considered to be rather tightly interrelated. Only one of these four works (Madame Chrysanthème) was originally composed as a ballet for Ashton’s work. However all four are much associated with Ashton in the dance world. His work has been resurrected in recent times by the Royal Ballet companies. Against this background these choices seem singularly appropriate.

The question then becomes, is the music strong enough to stand alone, totally separated from the dancers and choreography? Happily, the works here are all strong musically, and stand up well in their own right. Taken as a unit, they are not so dissimilar as to cause distraction, nor are they so similar that they create monotony. Musically this is in fact a well conceived and contrasting program, and the happenstance that brought them together becomes just that much more serendipitous.

The first work, Les Deux Pigeons, is a full-length ballet in two acts, lasting over an hour. The music is lovely, mostly light-hearted, and very well recorded. It feels very much like a symphony in 21 parts: a myriad of short inter-related works designed for each of the dance vignettes.

Dante Sonata, the second selection, is a piano feature very unlike the other selections here. It feels much more contemporary, more energetic, and perhaps a bit more cohesive than the longer works. The pianist, Jonathan Higgins, is at the top of his game, and gives an inspired performance. This is perhaps the highlight of the over-two-hours of recorded music. This reviewer would have difficulty not recommending the album just on the strength of this one work.

Happily the second disc is just as wonderful as the first. Madame Chrysanthème makes use of the mezzo-soprano voice, which while uncommon in dance works, makes this stand out from the general repertoire of dance music, and nearly puts it in the camp of music for music’s sake. Additionally the performance is again excellent, with Judith Harris doing a masterful job when called upon, as the orchestra beautifully executes each of the eight movements. Much like the Dante Sonata, this is a very strong work on its own, sounding thoroughly modern without alienating any of the audience through overtly atonal constructions or experimental techniques.

The final work is Harlequin in the Street, a ballet orchestrated from works originally composed for the harpsichord by François Couperin. This serves as a wonderfully interesting collection of pieces that sound more like works from the Romantic era than the Baroque or late Renaissance: endlessly delightful, elegant and refined. There are more than a dozen short pieces orchestrated in this manner, and each one is a treat. Taken as a whole, this is a joyous and enjoyable ballet of lovely music to which one is far too infrequently exposed.

Generally speaking, this is an excellent disc of music. The fact that it is tied together through its association with Sir Frederick Ashton is nice if you are familiar with that presentation of these works. If you are not familiar with the dances, you will still find this an excellent collection. While not an essential album, it is certainly an excellent collection of lesser-recorded works, and as such would be a generally solid addition to any CD library.

Patrick Gary

 

Madame Chrysanthéme:

a recording session report

Philip Lane

When I knew I would be producing a recording of Alan Rawsthorne’s ballet score, Madame Chrysanthéme, I thought it would be rather like shaking hands with a long lost friend. As it turned out, it was more akin to meeting a distant relative of this old friend, and for the first time! I discovered, as a schoolboy, the suite from the ballet on an old Pye Golden Guinea LP where, with the addition of Street Corner, it shared company with two other British ballet suites from 1953, conducted by their respective composers - Carte Blanche by John Addison, and The Great Detective by Richard Arnell. They had originally been separate Nixa EPs and in 1993 they all came together again, this time on CD, completed by the suite from Bliss’s Checkmate and Arnold’s Grand Grand Overture from EMI’s own catalogue, following that company’s purchase of the rights to the Nixa label.

We recorded, for the first time, the complete Madame Chrysanthéme ballet score as part of a double CD set to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Sir Frederick Ashton, to be issued by Sanctuary Classics White Line label in January 2004. (For this Tribute to Sir Fred I also chose to include Messager’s The Two Pigeons in the version by the late John Lanchbery, Liszt’s Dante Sonata orchestrated by Constant Lambert, and a wonderfully ‘non-politically correct’ Couperin/Gordon Jacob concoction from 1938, Harlequin in the Street.) The sessions took place in early July 2003 at the Sony Music Studios in London’s West End, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and their musical director, Barry Wordsworth.

Increasingly unusually for these days, the orchestra was playing from the original, hand-written parts, rather than from the ubiquitous ‘Sibeliusengraved’ material that professional players are now invariably used to seeing. As a producer, I always allow up to twenty five per cent more time to record from old, hand-copied parts - from bitter experience! As it was, the material was pretty clear, but as with even the most established of classics, there were copying errors and anomalies - the odd additions in the full score that had not found their way into the parts, and vice versa. We restored five and a half bars cut from ‘Chrysanthéme’s Solo Dance’ - a excision presumably made late on in pre-production, as there is no equivalent cut in the rehearsal piano score. Constant cross-referencing between piano and orchestral scores sorted out a

number of queries, luckily before the sessions took place.

The ballet premiered at Covent Garden on 1 April 1955, conducted by Robert Irving. The sets and costumes were by Rawsthorne’s wife, Isabel, and the reviews that did appear (there was a newspaper strike on at the time) were generally favourable. The American performances, that autumn, drew an even more enthusiastic reception. Ashton had devised the scenario with Vera Bowen from Pierre Loti’s novel, eliminating passages that would have cluttered up the story-line, and hindered the plot development. A French sailor, Pierre, enters into a ‘temporary’ marriage with the young eponymous Japanese girl, but finds that communication of all sorts is difficult between them, mirroring the general theme of discomfort in the meeting of East and West. Pierre has to leave Nagasaki and comes to say farewell to Chrysanthéme, only to find her testing the coins with which he bought her by tapping them with a hammer and dropping them into a bowl to test their genuineness.

In the studio, the proceedings had the air of a journey of rediscovery, largely since I was not able beforehand to talk to anyone connected with the original production, musically or choreographically; and neither could Barry Wordsworth, nor the veteran critic and writer Noel Goodwin, who attended some of the sessions, prior to compiling the ‘sleeve notes’ for the whole album. Unusually for such a project, we recorded the score in strict chronological order. This seemed to make sense since many of the numbers are segue. So it came as an even bigger surprise to discover that it was not until a hundred pages of full score had elapsed that any music familiar to me presented itself and when it did, its sound and progression were not as anticipated.

Rawsthorne created a suite from the ballet for concert performance, premiering it at the 1957 BBC Promenade Concerts under his own baton. However, little of the suite appears as such in the ballet proper; and in addition there are very obvious instrumentation changes. These may have come about as a practical proposition (the original is strangely scored for 3 flutes, oboe, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, three trumpets, piano, celesta, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and mezzo-soprano), but also from the fact that the actual orchestration of the ballet is the work of three hands: Rawsthorne, Gerard Schurmann (veteran of many Rawsthorne film scores), and Denis Aplvor. It may well have been that Rawsthorne wished to stamp entirely his own signature on the suite as time finally allowed. (In the same way, Lord Berners claimed to have re-orchestrated much of The Triumph of Neptune after the initial performances, replacing work done by Walton and Lambert.)

We came to the project with the well documented views of John McCabe and Ashton himself very much in our minds. Ashton thought the score lacked real distinction, and his own treatment of the story, with its sardonic ending rather than the more melodramatic one favoured by Puccini, did not appeal to the public. Certainly, the music is rarely forthrightly assertive apart from the ‘Sword Dance’ and, to a lesser extent, the ‘Hornpipe’ - but it is skilfully crafted and in places positively luxuriant. Above all, it conjures up wonderfully the oriental world without any recourse to Hollywood cliché The one dig-in-the-ribs Rawsthorne allows himself is the distinctive opening chord of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ (even in the original key) as a punctuation mark in Scene 3, when Chrsyanthéme is ‘married’ to Pierre and the agreed sum of silver dollars is handed over to her parents.

Rawsthorne’s choice of instrumentation has not been fully explained as far as I know (he had the massed forces of the Covent Garden orchestra at his disposal, had he wanted them.) Why, for example, did he use three flutes when a clarinet could often have ‘aped’ the lowest flute and in addition given him an extra solo colour elsewhere? Why three trumpets and no trombones? The choice of piano, celesta, and harp is somewhat clearer, given the ‘eastern’ setting. The percussion parts however are quite prosaic, given the ambience of the piece, with little attempt at an ethnic ‘feel’. Throughout, it is unmistakably Rawsthorne, his style rigidly coming to terms with the unusual surroundings. My mind occasionally wandered to another exotic ballet score that appeared just two years later Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas - where the ethnic Orient certainly has its place in the aural landscape, with mock gamelan orchestra, et al. Both works suffered years of unforgivable neglect following their first performances, although Britten’s masterpiece has been finally been rehabilitated by means of a new scenario and choreography.

Barry Wordsworth and I pondered on whether this new (and first) recording of Madame Chrysanthéme might excite a company somewhere to revive the ballet. Ashton’s work was not recorded choreologically, so any revival would depend on the varying memories of surviving dancers - as recently with Dante Sonata - or on new choreography being created. As a listening experience, I have to say that I find the sound world constantly engaging, but in the same way as many of Rawsthorne’s film scores are: on the surface, understated compared with some by his contemporaries. The score probably lacks the dramatic edge overall to appeal to ‘the gallery’. Despite that, I hope this new performance helps to fill a gap in the recorded œuvre, and lets us hear one of Rawsthorne’s most substantial works for the first time in nearly fifty years.

©Philip Lane 2003

This article first appeared in The Creel Vol5 No.1 Autumn 2003 - the Journal of the Rawsthorne Society.

 



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