Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia (1870) [1:51:55]
CD 1
Acts I - II; Act III (beginning) [78:44]
CD 2
Act III (conclusion) [23:11]
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris/Jean-Baptiste Mari
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, January 1977
Ludwig MINKUS (1827-1890)
Don Quixote (highlights, arr. Lanchbery) (1869/1966) [55:36]
Elizabethan Trust Melbourne Orchestra/John Lanchbery
rec. Bill Armstrong's Studios, Melbourne, September 1972
EMI CLASSICS 9677232 [78:44 + 78:53]

At the start, this threatens to be the most depressing Coppélia ever. The horns in the "Dawn" portion of the Prélude haul themselves through the motions, slack and dispirited. After the violins' laborious upward run, the heavily accented mazurka theme clomps along on leaden feet. The evening promised to be very long indeed.

This horrible start isn't completely representative of the performance. Where he can, conductor Jean-Baptiste Mari displays a good feeling for the score's infectious rhythms - even the recurrences of the Mazurka attain some sense of balletic lift, though the violin scale never gets any better - and its dramatic ebb and flow. He favors measured tempi, some of which work, some don't. In Act III, the Valse des heures achieves real grandeur; a bit later, La Prière sounds becalmed.

The limitations of his ensemble may have dictated the tempi. Other orchestras have served up this score - the precursor to Tchaikovsky's symphonic ballets - with virtuoso polish (the "National Philharmonic" pickup orchestra for Bonynge, Decca) or stylish elegance (l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for Ansermet, also Decca), but it's all these Paris players can do just to reach mediocre competence. The string tone is "warm", in a generalized way, but neither transparent nor really sweet, and has an unpleasant glare. Clarinet solos are sometimes clear and poised, sometimes flat-out sour. The solo cello in La Paix is full-bodied, but stiff and cautious. The sonority is thickish, and ensemble is challenged by the triplets of the Act II Scéne (disc 1, track 22), the climax of which plods. Those who remember the firm, unified sounds of the Paris Opera Orchestra on Roberto Benzi's Coppélia excerpts (Philips, last seen on a "Classette") will no doubt be abashed at the comparatively scraggly playing here by, I assume, its successor ensemble.

The engineering is plausible, though boomy, unsubtle pizzicatos and jangly low harp tones call attention to an unwelcome bass pre-emphasis. The CD processing points up a bungled splice right at the clarinet entry at 4:56 - which doesn't quite clear the preceding bass pizzicato - and a number of others which weren't terribly well concealed.

As a "filler", EMI offers the contents of an entire additional LP! Ludwig Minkus, while not a particularly important figure in music history, looms larger in that of ballet. The present selection, from his ballet Don Quixote, proves high-quality music. To call it well-crafted and rhythmically fresh, while true, would be faint praise - much the same could have been expected from any nineteenth-century ballet score. But Minkus also displays a winning melodic gift; the tunes hold the listener's attention, though few of them linger in the mind as do some of those in Coppélia, or even in Adolphe Adam's Giselle.

The extent of John Lanchbery's ministrations as "arranger" is left unclear; perhaps he simply cut down the score from the five-act 1871 Bolshoi edition version for the 1966 Vienna production. At the podium, the veteran Lanchbery captures the music's rhythmic lilt nicely. In a few of the waltzes - the Act I Pas de deux, the Act III Entreé - the climaxes feel heavy-handed, but the rhythmic pointing remains clear

Lanchbery also manages to project the score's varied orchestral palette, even through one of those bad old EMI recordings of the 1970s that blankets the orchestra in an aggressive resonance, and then attempts to compensate with extensive sectional "spotlighting". On vinyl - and, I admit, on a stereo rig of limited capacity - I remember finding the result bloated, undifferentiated, and pretty much unlistenable. Digital tweaking, however, has sharpened the focus sufficiently that, particularly over headphones, there's enough clarity, and the big, buzzy sonority, while hardly delicate or subtle, is impressive. There's a bad splice about thirty seconds into the Séguidillas, though it would have been hard to manage it better, given this amount of ambience.

The playing of the Melbourne orchestra is not faultless - the tuba solo in the Entrance of Gamache is dicey, and a busy passage in the Entrance of the Matadors threatens to come unstuck - but, in terms of finesse, tonal blend, and rhythmic acumen, these players are leagues ahead of the French orchestra. Reginald Stead's violin solo floats sweetly over the big Adagio.

I can't recommend Mari's Coppélia - I never really understood the fuss, at the time, over his brief series of recordings with the Paris forces. The Don Quixote selection is good, but I don't know that I'd buy the album just to get it. On the other hand, I suppose people have done stranger things at mid-price.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Rob Maynard

I can't recommend Mari's Coppélia but the Don Quixote selection is good.