Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote - highlights (1869) [55:45]
Paquita - Pas de dix (1881) [16:40]
La Bayadère – The kingdom of the shades (1877) [32:00]
Riccardo DRIGO (1846-1930)
Le Corsaire – Pas de deux (1887) [6:39]
Eduard HELSTED (1816-1900), Holger PAULLI (1810-1891) and Niels GADE (1817-1890)
Napoli - Suite dansante (1842) [13:49]
Holger PAULLI (1810-1891)
The kermesse in Bruges - extracts (1851) [10:17]
Eduard HELSTED (1816-1900) and Holger PAULLI (1810-1891)
Flower festival at Genzano – extracts (1858) [9:01]
Elizabethan Trust Melbourne Orchestra/John Lanchbery (Don Quixote)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery (Paquita and La Bayadère)
London Festival Ballet Orchestra/Terence Kern (Le Corsaire and Napoli)
Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Schmidt (The kermesse in Bruges and Flower festival at Genzano)
rec. 21 April-6 May 1972 (Le Corsaire and Napoli), November 1972 (Don Quixote), 1978 (The kermesse in Bruges and Flower festival at Genzano) and January 1983 (Paquita and La Bayadère); No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Le Corsaire and Napoli), Bill Armstrong’s Studios, Melbourne (Don Quixote), Copenhagen (The kermesse in Bruges and Flower festival at Genzano) and Australian Broadcasting Commission Studios, Sydney (Paquita and La Bayadère). ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6486402 [72:26 + 72:18]

Someone at EMI must read MusicWeb International. After my complaints about the failure of previous issues in this ballet mini-series to get Minkus’s dates right (review and review), they have now not only managed to do so but have also largely given over this new double CD set to his music.

The revival of interest in Minkus in the past fifty years or so, following the Kirov’s revelatory Paris performance of La Bayadère’s exquisite Kingdom of the Shades in 1961, has significantly changed the way in which his music is perceived and presented. Anyone who saw the Bolshoi Ballet production of Don Quixote in London a few months ago - its star Natalia Osipova is pictured on this CD’s cover - or who has seen the Mariinsky company performing the same work on DVD (review) will already be aware that, when treated seriously and allocated the proper resources, Minkus’s scores reveal both the composer’s outstanding melodic gifts and the rich depths of his orchestral palette.

In that light, I am afraid that the 1972 account of Don Quixote highlights by the Elizabethan Trust Melbourne Orchestra under John Lanchbery really will not do. It was made, according to Tony Locantro’s useful booklet notes, as the soundtrack to a film of Rudolf Nureyev’s production for the Australian Ballet. When heard without reference to the visual images it originally accompanied, it emerges as sonically and artistically lightweight and essentially rather vulgar. Whenever the score picks up tempo, especially in the many vivacious, rhythmic “Spanish” dances, Lanchbery adds lots of extra little musical flourishes and points up the visual comedy with such effects as the characteristic “wah-wah” sound of muted trumpets and strings that play with exaggerated portamento. This is a performance that reflects in sound the commonly held belief that pre-Tchaikovsky Russian ballet lacked any genuine artistic credentials and was merely an opportunity for dissolute young noblemen to ogle the pretty young girls of the corps de ballet as they danced to tunes only a step or two away from music hall.

Nor are matters helped by the sound. Bill Armstrong’s Studios may well have been one of Australia’s leading recording venues at that time, but on this occasion it sounds as if the microphones were actually placed in Mr Armstrong’s exceptionally reverberant swimming pool. For an example of the way in which this music ought to be played and recorded, try the bargain-priced recording by the Sofia National Opera Orchestra under Nayden Todorov, an issue most warmly reviewed by my colleague Patrick Gary (see here).

Thankfully, however, the other performances on these discs aspire to higher musical standards. The Sydney, London and Copenhagen orchestras all treat these scores with far more respect. This, in turn, gives, to my own ears at least, their innate vivacity and frequent touches of humour even more of an impact.

Rounding off the first disc and helped by a far more realistic acoustical setting, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays with sophistication and verve and puts its Melbourne rivals quite in the shade: the fact that Lanchbery is once again the conductor indicates, perhaps, that the coarser elements of the earlier Don Quixote performance may have owed more to Nureyev than to him. While the rest of Paquita’s score is largely by the long-forgotten Edouard-Marie-Ernest Deldevez, it is a highly attractive ballet and I strongly recommend the DVD of the Opéra National de Paris’s 2003 production (TDK DV-BLPAQ) to anyone wanting to hear more.

The music from Act 4 of La Bayadère is again played by the Sydney orchestra under Lanchbery. The famous Entrance of the shades is taken so very slowly that dancing to it would test all but the finest corps de ballet to their limits but, in audio alone, such a lusciously gorgeous melody can take the indulgence. The rest of the Act is carried off with huge aplomb. Subsequently the London Festival Ballet Orchestra, in excellently re-mastered sound, demonstrates its familiarity with the idiom in a fine performance of the pas de deux that Riccardo Drigo wrote for Le Corsaire.

Many listeners who know Bournonville’s ballet Napoli will probably do so from the first class performance by the Royal Danish Ballet on DVD (NVC Arts 2564-63477-2). On this new CD, Ole Schmidt, who died in March 2010 and is best remembered for his 1974 recordings of the complete Nielsen symphonies (review), injects enough excitement to stir Mount Vesuvius – which overlooks the action in the ballet – into a major eruption. The final tarantella is sadly truncated but nevertheless rounds off a highly enjoyable performance. Music taken from two more of Bournonville’s productions, The kermesse in Bruges (1851) and Flower festival at Genzano (1858), are played with equal vivacity, authenticity and expertise.

With my reservations about the performance of Don Quixote put to one side - though, given it is the most substantial item on these discs, certainly not forgotten - this well-filled set offers plenty of attractive music that deserves to be rather better known. It can only add to the growing interest in those ballet composers working in the mid nineteenth century whose reputations were all too soon to be eclipsed by that of Tchaikovsky.

Rob Maynard

This well-filled set offers plenty of attractive music that deserves to be rather better known.