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The Heart of the Ballet Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) Extracts from "Giselle" (1841) – Variation of Giselle, Mad Scene, Memory of the Love Scene, Depair of Löys, Finale to Act 1 [4:16]; Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Invitation to the Dance (orch. Berlioz) [9:10]; Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849) Extracts from "Les Sylphides" (orch Leroy Anderson and Peter Bodge) – Prelude in A Op 26/7, Valse in G flat Op 70/1, Mazurka in C Op 67/3 [5:00]; Grand Valse Brillante in E flat Op 18/1 [4:42]; Léo DELIBES (1836-1891) Extracts from "Sylvia" (1876) – Valse lente, Pizzicato [3:53]; Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Extracts from "Swan Lake" (1877) – Dance of the Swan Queen [4:58]; Dance of the Little Swans [4:57]; "The Nutcracker" Suite (1892) [22:30]; Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-4) [10:19]; Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Ballet des Sylphes from "La Damnation de Faust" (1854-6) [2:54]
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, 1949-1950
CALA CACD0547 [72:44]

Although the music on this CD is largely familiar, with this conductor you can be sure that it will not necessarily sound that way. In almost every piece there are moments which sound wholly new or at least unlike what you expect at that point. I am not against freedom of interpretation and even some rewriting of the music in principle, and often conductorial changes illuminate the music and intensify its inherent character. Unfortunately this is by no means always the case, and the annoyance that this causes in at least this listener is magnified on repetition. By that time the novelty has worn off and what may have had the merit of seeming fresh or at least intriguing - even if wrong - the first time is unlikely to do so thereafter.

In the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker Suite, for example, the exaggerated tenuto on the bass clarinet and later clarinet’s first notes, followed by an undignified slither go way beyond what is either meaningful or acceptable. On the other hand the changes to the percussion parts in most other movements of the Suite do help to point rhythms and phrases, as do the changes to the harp part in the Waltz of the Flowers. The rhythmic freedom within phrases in that movement are also a pleasure to hear, as is the violin’s portamento in the Arabian Dance. Overall I regard the Suite as a success, although I am strongly tempted to omit the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy when I listen again.

The Debussy is also strongly characterized, and sounds much more like a close relation to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov than usual. Indeed the piece as a whole seems more exotic than erotic here. The brief extracts from "Giselle" are also worth hearing, but the coarse orchestrations and rhythmic distortions in the Chopin appear far from stylish. Partly this may be due to a recording which shows its age, sounding aggressive and uncomfortable. I am not sure whether the curious sound of the flute at the start of the Debussy is a recording fault or a very unusual vibrato. It improves later, so that it may be the latter although it is unlike other recordings that I have heard of the otherwise very fine first flute, John Wummer.

These are very much concert performances, and I could not recommend this disc to those who simply want a disc of ballet highlights in general to remind them of visits to the ballet. Clearly devotees of the conductor will want to have it. Others may well enjoy much of it, and are certainly unlikely to find it dull, but be warned that expletives may come to their lips at any time as a result of the conductor’s eccentricities.

John Sheppard


see also review by Jonathan Woolf


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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