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Witches’ Brew
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006) Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op. 55 (1955) [7:59]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Gnomus (from Pictures from an Exhibition) (1874) [2:38]
A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867) (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) [11;19]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874) [7:07]
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921) Witch’s Ride (from Hänsel und Gretel) (1893) [4:12]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Mephisto Waltz No. 1 [10:51]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Funeral March of a Marionette (1872/3)1 [4:37]
Faust: Ballet Music (1869)2 [16:16]
New Symphony Orchestra of London; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden1,2/Sir Alexander Gibson
rec.1959, 19641 ADD
Decca Eloquence 442 9985 [65:32]
Experience Classicsonline

All the music here, apart from the Gounod items, was first issued in 1959 on the RCA label, though recorded by Decca engineers. Some of the items have been included in other CD compilations; others have never before appeared in this medium and the programme is reassembled for the first time on silver disc. Adding the Gounod pieces brings the selection up to a reasonable length for a CD.

They don’t make ’em like this any longer, which is a shame because such a compilation, if well performed and recorded, can be very entertaining.  In 1959 the recording was regarded as demonstration-worthy, even in mono, and it still sounds well, hardly showing its age.

Reviewers in the UK in 1959 were less taken with the presentation; I can’t remember what the cover looked like but it was described as ‘ludicrously corny’ and the presentation criticised on a number of counts, most of which have now been put right, except that Australian Decca still insist on calling the Mussorgsky work Pictures at an Exhibition, recte entitled Pictures from an Exhibition and Gnomus has nothing to do with witches.  I suppose that the new cover could be called ‘corny’, but it’s tasteful corn, if such a thing is possible.

When the programme reappeared in 1972 on Decca’s World of … label at 99p, Ansermet’s performance of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice had been added – in many ways a more appropriate coupling than the Gounod pieces which have replaced it for the CD reissue.

Were the performances here worth resurrecting?  Apart from Gnomus, which seems out of place divorced from the remainder of the Pictures, it’s all very enjoyable, if somewhat hectic.  In 1959 I don’t think there were too many recordings of Tam o’Shanter; now there are at least nine, not counting this reissue, so, though the Eloquence CD remains worthwhile for this work alone, it has competitors.  The most notable of these are on all-Arnold collections: from Arnold himself (Arnold conducts Arnold, a low-price EMI 2-CD set, 3 82146 2, Bargain of the Month – see review), on a 4-CD Decca set (Arnold Edition, Volume 3, 476 5348 – see review) and the BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba (Chandos CHAN10293, another Recording of the Month – see review).

The remaining items from the original RCA LP come in entertaining and enthusiastic rather than subtle performances, probably well enough suited to the kind of beginner in classical music to whom the album is likely to appeal – I’d probably have enjoyed this much more 50 years ago than I do now. Fifty years ago, when the LP was issued, I couldn’t afford full-price at around £40 in modern terms, and had to settle for Ace of Clubs and Golden Guineas. I’d probably have enjoyed the disembodied Gnomus and the witch’s ride from Hänsel und Gretel – in fact, I don’t think I’d even heard the complete Humperdinck opera 50 years ago – so I must be careful not to seem supercilious about these chunks.  I’d probably not have noticed the slightly ragged edges of the playing, either, back then.  It was, you will recall, Grumpy who dismissed Snow White’s cooking as a witches’ brew, and I don’t wish to emulate him.

The two Gounod pieces are played by the Covent Garden Orchestra and sound much better than the preceding works; they, too, first appeared on RCA, on their cheaper Victrola label.  The Faust ballet music may not be quite up to Beecham’s standards (EMI GROC 5 67899 2), but very little is.  That Beecham recording, however, contains his delicious account of Delibes’ Le roi s’amuse, which I wouldn’t want to be without, so if you follow my recommendation and buy that recording, you’ll already possess an excellent version of the Faust ballet.

In any case, Eloquence already have a good version of the Faust ballet music in their catalogue, directed by Solti, coupled with Offenbach’s Gaité Parisienne, etc., on 476 2724, which John Philips recommended very highly – see review – though Stephen Vasta was less impressed by the Offenbach – see review

If you can live without the Delibes and don’t want the Offenbach, Gibson’s account of the Faust ballet deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the other ballet-music successes which this label has given us, including Bonynge’s first recording of Adam’s Giselle (442 9028 – see review) and John Lanchbery’s own version of his La fille mal gardée (442 9048 – see review).

As usual with these Australian Eloquence reissues, the booklet is informative and, earlier remarks about the cover notwithstanding, the presentation is attractive.

This reissue is good in parts – its outer parts, in fact.  I really enjoyed Tam O’Shanter and I warmed to the last 21 minutes of Gounod, which, added together, makes almost half of the total time. The inner parts are lively enough.  Whether there is enough here to satisfy you, only you can decide.  The CD is offered cheaply enough for you to afford to experiment; even that RCA Victrola CD and the Decca reissue cost 99p each, the equivalent of around £15 in 2009 terms, so a third of the price for more music seems more than reasonable.
Brian Wilson

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