This is a difficult CD to review. Let me explain.
Ballet, as one of the visual arts depends on the interaction of
movement, music, scenery and plot (possibly abstract). Like opera,
any recording of a ballet score is always second, if not third
best. Ballets are self-contained: in other words they are complete
works of art. Although they can be arranged, transcribed and excerpted,
they stand or fall as a unity of sound and vision. However, the
five works presented here are by and large concert pieces. They
have (or ought to have) a life of their own. For example, there
are five excellent recordings of Gabriel Fauré's music for Shylock
some 27 editions of his Pelleas and Mellisande
, 42 versions
of Tchaikovsky’s Third ‘Polish’ Symphony and even more than twenty
recordings of that particular composer’s relatively little-known
Third Piano Concerto. Digging deeper, virtually all the pieces
sampled on this set are already available in the CD catalogues.
What we have on this disc is a representative collection of the
vast amount of music that was used by the great choreographer,
It is not necessary to give a detailed biography of Balanchine in this review. However, there are perhaps three key facts that need to be remembered. Firstly he was born in St Petersburg in 1904 and died in New York in 1983. He therefore spanned a large part of the twentieth century and was heavily influenced by Diaghilev for whom he danced in Paris with the Ballets Russes. Secondly, he was founder, chief choreographer and artistic director of the New York Ballet. It was an opportunity to make use of a vast range of music covering all ages, styles and genres. However, he was especially keen ‘to combine his deep knowledge of classical forms and techniques with an imaginative talent for unconventional movements to produce a unique style of modern dance.’ Finally, he pioneered choreography for Broadway musicals and film music.
The present disc showcases the music of a number of his best-known balletic creations. Perhaps the most important contribution is the complete music for the large-scale ballet Jewels
: this was the first full-length ‘abstract’ ballet. The story goes that it was inspired by a visit by Balanchine to the New York jewellers Van Cleef and Arpel. Yet, he always insisted that it had nothing to do with the ‘gems’ but reflected the fact that the dancers were dressed like ‘jewels’. The idea behind this ballet was straightforward. There was no plot or narrative: he simply intended the dancers to complement the music. The scores of Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky make a satisfying ‘symphonic’ whole and actually reward being listened to in their entirety.
The Allegro Brillante, also using music by Tchaikovsky, has been described by Maria Tallchief, the ballerina for whom Balanchine created the lead role, as reflecting "an expansive Russian romanticism". Balanchine himself said: "It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes." It makes use of the composer’s relatively unknown Third Piano Concerto.
The final contribution from Tchaikovsky is the important Serenade
- based on the famous eponymous piece for string orchestra. This ballet has been regarded as one of the most important events in American dance history. It was, “the first original ballet Balanchine created in America and is one of the signature works of New York City Ballet's repertory.” Serenade
has a large number of performers who are dressed in blue costumes and are set against a blue background. Apparently it originated as a study of ‘stage technique’. The story goes that when one student accidentally fell over, Balanchine incorporated this in the ballet. Another performer turned up late: this, too, was made a part of the ‘story’.
The ballet based on Bizet’s attractive Symphony in C
is another ‘narrative-free’ creation. Each movement is choreographed for a separate cast of dancers. Once again it is the interpretation of the music rather than an imagined story that is the important thing. The final movement includes a ‘glorious climax’ with all the members of the cast on the stage. It was first danced by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947.
My only complaint about this set is that I wish EMI had been able to record some of the lesser-known ballet scores, such as Ivesiana
or the especially-composed ballet score by Hershey Kay, Western Symphony
. As it is, there is a wee bit too much Tchaikovsky and as mentioned above all the music is easily found in a myriad other versions.
But all in all this is a good, packed, double that includes much attractive music: the listings of the performers make any comment on the quality of the musical performance largely superfluous.