Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia (1870) [101:55]
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote - highlights (1869) [55:36]
Orchestre du Théâtre National de L’Opéra de Paris/Jean-Baptiste Mari (Delibes)
Elizabethan Trust Melbourne Orchestra/John Lanchbery (Minkus)
rec. November 1972 (Minkus) and 13-14 and 17-18 January 1977 (Delibes); Bill Armstrong’s Studios, Melbourne (Minkus) and Salle Wagram, Paris (Delibes)
EMI CLASSICS 9677232 [78:44 + 78:53]  

Sylvia (1876) [100:36]
La Source - Act 2 (1866) [24:24]
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Paquita - Pas de dix (1881) [16:40]
Orchestre du Théâtre National de L’Opéra de Paris/Jean-Baptiste Mari (Delibes Sylvia)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Charles Mackerras (Delibes La Source)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery (Minkus)
rec. 23 April 1956 (Delibes La Source), 5-13 December 1977 (Delibes Sylvia) and January 1983 (Minkus); No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Delibes La Source), Salle Wagram, Paris (Delibes Sylvia) and ABC Studios, Sydney (Minkus)
EMI CLASSICS 9677162 [69:39 + 72:13]

The story of Coppélia encompasses varying degrees of broad comedy, romance and pathos and is illustrated by a sparkling score full of foot-tapping tunes that will be instantly familiar to anyone who ever heard the long-running BBC radio programme Your hundred best tunes. Sylvia, on the other hand, with its characters drawn pretty randomly from Greek myth and the composer’s imagination, is considerably darker and richer in both its theme and its music. No less a contemporary than Tchaikovsky was a huge admirer of Delibes’ scores and, in composing his own ballets, regarded the Frenchman as something of a model.

Balletomanes have been lucky in recent years to see a wealth of performances - newly filmed or re-emerging from archives - appearing on DVD. There is still, though, a market for ballet music recorded on CD and, if you are listening in the car, on a plane or on the beach - with headphones, please! - I can think of no more enjoyable versions of Delibes’s imaginative and inventive scores than those currently under review.

Jean-Baptiste Mari, an Algerian-born protégé of Charles Munch, presents us with accounts that clearly derive from the theatre and, not surprisingly, the Orchestre du Théâtre National de L’Opéra de Paris is at one with him on that. Tempi are all carefully chosen to suit the practicalities of real-life performances - as Delibes himself would obviously have intended them to be - and generally eschew vulgar crowd-pleasing effects. That, coupled with the frequently quite dark sonorities produced by the orchestra, may at times make for a less exciting individual number or two, but the overall result is that Coppélia and Sylvia emerge as far more musically impressive than is often the case. That is not to say, however, that the innate lyricism of the scores is lost: Mari consistently coaxes exquisitely beautiful playing from the superbly balanced orchestra and often reveals, as a result, felicitous detail than has frequently been obscured - or lost altogether - in other performances.

Given that the same conductor, orchestra, recording venue, producer (Gréco Casadesus) and balance engineer (Paul Vavasseur) were involved in both recordings, it is not surprising that both Delibes ballets, even allowing for their differing overall tones, emerge with equal success. These beautifully-recorded accounts displace virtually all others to go straight to the top of the tree.

I only wish that I could be as fully enthusiastic about the (quite substantial) fillers but, in reality, they are a distinctly mixed bag. The best is the Act 2 music from La Source, a hybrid ballet by Delibes (who composed the music for that Act in full, as well as the first scene of Act 3) and Minkus (responsible for Act 1 and the second scene of Act 3). Mackerras and his Covent Garden players sound as if they are enjoying themselves immensely, with lots of felicitous and affectionate touches demonstrated throughout.

Lanchberry seems less involved in the Paquita pas de dix, however, and fails to characterise much of it effectively. This is - rather surprisingly, given the conductor’s background - very much a version of the score that has been divorced from the reality of the requirements of dancers on the stage and emerges, therefore, as merely a sequence of lightweight, if rather pretty, tunes.

Even less appealing, though, are the highlights from Minkus’s Don Quixote that fill out the second disc of Coppélia. Something very odd indeed has happened here. Nayden Todorov’s account of the full score on Naxos (given a very favourable review by my colleague Patrick Gary here and a generally positive one by Michael Cookson here) demonstrated just how rich this music can sound when treated with respect and given the full “symphonic” treatment. The latest and best DVD recording of the full ballet, performed by artists of the Mariinsky Ballet, also reinforces that point (see here). On the disc under review, however, Lanchberry and his Melbourne orchestra do the music few favours. The performance is superficial, crudely and sometimes rather vulgarly shaped and frequently plagued by the addition of unnecessary “cute” little instrumental flourishes, all seeming to suggest that this is essentially “light” music. There were times, indeed, when I thought I was listening to a performance by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass rather than a professional symphony orchestra. But Minkus’s reputation has risen considerably in recent years - especially with the re-emergence of his masterpiece La Bayadère into wider currency - and he deserves better than an account that sounds more suited to an audience in a music hall rather than in a theatre.

He also deserves, incidentally, greater respect from EMI who once again manage to get the date of his death wrong by almost two decades. Minkus did not die in 1890 as their packaging and booklet notes suggest, but survived in Vienna, in abject poverty as the First World War hostilities deprived him of his Russian pension, until 1917 when he was buried in a pauper’s grave, only to have even that destroyed - and his remains scattered to the winds - by Nazi thugs after their takeover of Austria in 1938. May I recommend that those responsible for this consistently repeated howler add a copy of Robert Letellier’s The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus [Cambridge, 2008] to their reference library?

Rob Maynard