Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (1841) [103:56]
Riccardo DRIGO (1846-1930)
Le Corsaire - Pas de deux and variations (1887) [6:39]
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
La Bayadère - The Kingdom of the Shades (1877) [32:00]
London Festival Ballet Orchestra/Terence Kern (Adam, Drigo)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery (Minkus)
rec. 21 April - 6 May 1972 (Adam, Drigo) and January 1983 (Minkus); No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Adam, Drigo) and ABC Studios, Sydney (Minkus)
EMI CLASSICS 9682052 [72:50 + 69:58] 

We can all appreciate opera on CD. OK, we miss the visual element - but, as the large audiences who flock regularly to non-staged concert performances of opera attest, that is arguably an aspect of less significance than the music itself and the purely vocal skills of the artists interpreting those scores.

Ballet, however, is clearly much more of a visual medium. We watch the dancers on the stage rather than listen to them and we cannot appreciate their art on a CD. Thus one might be tempted to ask whether there is any rationale at all these days - when many very fine recorded ballet performances are emerging from the archives and appearing on DVD - to justify listening to ballet scores on CD as stand-alone entertainment.

Well, of course there is. At the most obvious level, it is clearly impractical in everyday life to sit down fixedly for a couple of hours in front of the TV screen: it is far more convenient to enjoy just the music on CD as you vacuum the carpets, wash the dishes or even drive the car. Moreover, the scores themselves are often well worth listening to on their own as pure music: while they may not necessarily be as intellectually stimulating or challenging as a late Beethoven string quartet or a Mozart opera, they can often be at the very least life-enriching and emotionally cathartic - by turns effervescently joyous, tragically heartbreaking or simply annoyingly foot-tapping - which is, after all, the quite literal purpose of a ballet score.

There is certainly plenty of music to stir the widest range of emotions and jerk the feet into motion on this pair of discs - even without the ability to see any dancers on stage. The website of English National Ballet (London Festival Ballet’s name since 1989) makes some play of the company’s historic links with Giselle (see here) and this well-engineered recording certainly demonstrates the orchestra and the conductor’s familiarity with and appreciation for Adam’s well constructed score. Terence Kern is entirely at home with the appropriate musical idiom and invariably conscious of the practicalities of supporting the action on stage: tempi are therefore invariably finely judged and eminently danceable. This is a performance that smells of greasepaint - not just of the recording studio. The orchestra sounds rich and full, placing Giselle fully in the tradition of the 19th century Romantic ballet scores of which, in so many aspects, it was the fons et origo.

Competition is, though, fierce. My own favourite performance on disc - by the hugely experienced Anatole Fistoulari and the London Symphony Orchestra (Mercury 434 365-2) may have been recorded more than fifty years ago but the skills of the original Mercury Living Presence engineers mean that its sound hasn’t dated at all. On DVD, I have had immense and repeated enjoyment from the Kirov Ballet’s 1983 performance starring Galina Mezentseva and Konstantin Zaklinsky and reliably directed by Viktor Fedotov (NVC Arts 0630-19397-2).

Le Corsaire has, given its potboiler story of pirate heroics and low farce, a rather more rambunctious - not to say, at times, positively raucous - score. The brief extract we have here is of the ballet’s best-known showpiece, composed by the Music Director of the Imperial Ballet, the long-lived but unjustly neglected Riccardo Drigo (you may see Rudolf Nureyev in full flight here and here). Kern and his orchestra give us an appropriately lively account of the music. (By the way, here’s a good question for a quiz: which composers contributed music to Petipa’s production of Le Corsaire? Apart from Adam, Delibes, Drigo and Minkus they were such largely-forgotten luminaries as Cesare Pugni, Prince Pyotr of Oldenbourg, Baron Boris Vietinghoff-Scheel, Yuli Gerber, Albert Zebel, Mikhael Ivanov and a certain Mr Zibin who apparently remains so obscure that not even his first name is known.)

The Minkus Kingdom of the shades scene from La Bayadère, choreographed by Marius Petipa, is by universal consent one of the most beautiful in all ballet (see here). John Lanchbery, who conducts on this disc, had a close association with the ballet, re-orchestrating and re-composing it considerably to facilitate Natalia Makarova’s reconstruction of its final “lost” act. It seems strange, therefore, that here he directs the music for the Entrée of the 32 ghostly shades at a terribly slow tempo that, one imagines, would be very difficult to dance to in practice. Bonynge takes 7:58 over it on his Decca recording of the full ballet on 436 917-2. Lanchbery’s conducting on the superb Royal Ballet DVD of the complete La Bayadère - on TDK DV-BLLB - is similarly more up-tempo. However, the slower tempi to be found on this new CD do mean that Minkus’s gloriously ripe melodies, not just in the Entrée but also in the later Pas de deux, emerge with their maximum emotional impact.

One gripe: someone at EMI needs to revise their reference books. Not only this CD but two others featuring Minkus’s music that I have received manage to get his dates entirely wrong. They would have you believe that Minkus was born in 1827 and died in 1890. In fact he was born in 1826 and died in 1917 - so clocking up a full 28 more years of life than EMI seem to think.

Rob Maynard