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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1865)
Giselle (complete ballet) (1841)
Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo/Richard Bonynge
rec. Salle Alcazar, Monte-Carlo, October 1967. ADD.
Booklet with track details and notes in English.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9028 [61:08 + 61:40] 



For such a popular and regularly-performed ballet the choice of complete recordings of Giselle is somewhat limited: Mogrelia conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos (8.550755/6) and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra under Bonynge on a Double Decca (452 185-2).  For those who do not require the full score Karajan’s Vienna Philharmonic recording of about half of the work has been around in various guises, currently as a Decca Original (475 7507).  Now the Australian wing of Universal has made Bonynge’s earlier Monte-Carlo complete version available at bargain price, costing about the same, or even less, than the Naxos or the one-disc Karajan and around half the price of the Covent Garden Bonynge (But NB: Eloquence CDs and sets still appear to be expensive imports in the USA).

The first decision has to be whether one wants the complete ballet or is prepared to settle for highlights.  If highlights are enough – and it has to be admitted that Giselle is not the greatest ballet ever written – Karajan amply fits the bill.  His version is skilfully abridged, very well played by the VPO and well recorded.  It lacks the theatrical cohesion of a complete set, though it is certainly more than just a collection of ‘lollipops’, but until now I have been satisfied with it as the only version in my collection.

Reviewing a DVD version of the ballet on this site, in November 2000, Gary S. Dalkin described the music as “a melodic joy from beginning to end”, which sums up the reasons why I have been content with the Karajan until now.  The music certainly is tuneful and often skilful – there is even a fugue of which Bach himself would have approved (CD2, track 7, Fugue des Wilis).  Perhaps the Tchaikovsky ballets, which are a melodic joy but also much more, have spoiled our appreciation of the Adams of this world.  Perhaps, too, the supernatural elements of the story – the ghostly Wilis who seek to entice mortals into their world – make us think of Weber’s Freischütz or Schubert’s Erlkönig or the shipwreck in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and find Adam a little wanting in comparison; but we should no more judge all music by this standard than we would want to drink champagne all the time. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal puts it more elegantly: “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work.”  I Henry IV, I.2.182-3. 

It is even conceivable that many collectors will be satisfied with a shorter selection than the Karajan: for them the 15+ minutes included on another Naxos CD, Invitation to the Dance, containing music by Weber, Gounod (the Faust ballet) and Delibes (from Lakmé) will probably suffice (CSR Symphony Orchestra/Ondrej Lenard – a good ‘big-tune’ wallow on 8.550081). 

Reviews of the Covent Garden/Bonynge set have tended to dismiss the earlier Monte-Carlo version as under-rehearsed, lacking in the woodwind and brass contributions, and less well recorded.  Admittedly the solo oboe playing associated with Prince Albrecht is a little tentative but an alternative view might be that the performance is livelier and the conductor more spontaneous than on the later set, where Bonynge takes a few minutes longer over each act.  (If the oboe makes Albrecht seem a little hesitant, that is not out of keeping, especially in Act 2; most of us would waver somewhat faced with a troupe of ghostly visitants.)  Certainly if one were to hear a live orchestral performance as good as the Monte-Carlo version at the ballet, there would be little cause for complaint.  Both versions are much more theatrical than Karajan; to some extent this is due to the greater cohesion of a complete recording, but it is also a fact that Bonynge was a very experienced ballet and opera conductor who must have conducted Giselle many times in live performances. 

There is drama and contrast in this music – even some employment of the leitmotiv long before Wagner: Albrecht’s theme on the oboe, for example – and it is well brought out by Bonynge, who no doubt keyed his conducting to recollections of ballet performances.  CD2, track 7 offers a good example, where the music ranges from the bold entrée d’Hilarion via a menacing middle section depicting the Wilis to the fugue to which I have already referred.  In Karajan’s abridgement such dramatic contrast simply is not possible: he offers just 39 seconds from the central scène des Wilis as an entr’acte between the two pas de deux on either side, themselves abridgements of longer numbers.  The greater virtuosity of Karajan’s VPO takes us even further away from the theatre; the VPO sound a little too brisk and much larger-than-life than any theatre orchestra, though, not surprisingly, the Viennese orchestra achieves a greater sense of lilt and lift in the Valse (Karajan track 5; Bonynge CD1, track 15). 

It looks as if I shall be replacing my Karajan abridgement with this Bonynge reissue – I haven’t got room for both in an overcrowded collection.  And if it is to be a complete version, it might as well be a really complete version.  The Naxos/Mogrelia offers what is usually described as the ‘older European score’, with considerable cuts and interpolations; both Bonynge versions restore Adam’s complete original score and admit only three insertions, one of which was included in the original production. Can I live with the alleged shortcomings of the playing or must it be the Covent Garden version?  Admittedly, with music such as this, which is essentially fun rather than serious stuff, I tend to put away my equivalent of the slate on which Beckmesser scores all the faults in Die Meistersinger, but I genuinely was not troubled by any orchestral shortcomings and would gladly settle for this Monte-Carlo version. 

As far as the recording is concerned there is little cause for complaint.  All these Eloquence reissues carry the logo SBS superimposed on five blue lozenges: I take this to indicate that some form of 24-bit enhancement has been employed together with some kind of ambient surround imaging, as is stated to be the case with European-sourced Eloquence reissues.  Certainly the sound is clear and spacious, with a good dynamic range and nicely terraced, with distant horn-calls, for example, actually sounding as if they are distant.  If it is less forward than the Karajan, that is no bad thing: where the VPO sound as if they are playing in a concert hall, the Monte-Carlo orchestra’s sound is more like what would emanate from the pit of an opera house.  It can be replayed at a higher-than-usual setting without sounding harsh.  That a forty-year old recording – even older in the case of other Eloquence reissues – can be made to sound so good is a tribute to the quality of the original Decca master-tapes.  The Karajan, though clear and spacious, does not respond quite so well to being played at high volume, but the recording has been reprocessed, presumably for the better, at least twice since my copy of the Ovation issue. 

The notes to this set are adequate – the main body of them seems to have figured in several Decca issues of this ballet – but not as informative as one might wish.  It would be difficult, for example, to key the action as described here to the music and some of the characters listed in the track details are not even named in the summary.  Hilarion, for example, is named in the details for CD1, track 7 and CD2, track 7, but not mentioned in the notes.

For more seeking information on Adam and Giselle there is a long and informative article by Richard Jones. 

I may not turn to this music very often, but I certainly found the complete score enjoyable – more coherent than in any abridgement – and the performances and recording more than acceptable.  The cover picture, from Bonynge’s own collection of ballet prints, is a huge improvement on the childishly pixellated cover of my Ovation Karajan disc.  This is certainly a worthwhile addition to the treasures being reissued on the Australian Eloquence label, already a much more valuable source than its European equivalent.  Just Swan Lake in complete form from European Eloquence; not even single-disc highlights from the other Tchaikovsky ballets, only the three suites.  

Not only are most of the Australian reissues high quality performances, the range is quite varied.  I recently praised Handel’s Italian Cantatas (Emma Kirkby on 476 746-8) and I am currently savouring the delights of another Emma Kirkby reissue, An Elizabethan Songbook (476 7466 – formerly known in its original incarnation on Oiseau-Lyre as The Lady Musick).  John Lanchbery’s recording of his own arrangement of Hérold, La Fille Mal Gardée, arrived in the same post as this Adam set (442 9048, 2CDs, with Lecocq’s Mam’zelle Angot) – delightful music and I fully expect to award it the highest accolade.  More, please, from Australia. 

Brian Wilson




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