Invitation to the Dance
CD 1
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899) [37:43]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, S359 (orch. Karl Müller-Berghaus) (1847) [10:17]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Boléro (orch. 1928) [15:13]
Alborada del gracioso (orch 1918) [8:01]
CD 2
Adolphe Charles ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle - excerpts (ed. Henri Büsser) (1841) [49:39]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Aufforderung zum Tanz (Invitation to the Dance), Op. 65 (orch. Hector Berlioz) (1819) [9:48]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Three dances from El sombrero del tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat) (1919) [12:15]
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Albert Wolff
rec. La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, France, September 1954 (Liszt), May 1956 (Glazunov), October-November 1957 (Adam); La Maison de la Chimie, Paris, November 1958 (Ravel, Weber, Falla)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2388 [71:36 + 71:57]

These Eloquence reissues continue to impress; I’ve heard several, the most recent of which featured this Dutch-born conductor and his French band in a delicious selection of lollipops (review). Not quite in the same league as the Ansermet recordings from the same period but enjoyable, idiomatic performances nonetheless. What also makes these vintage sets so rewarding is that they are mostly in early stereo, the Glazunov produced by John Culshaw, who went on to mastermind Solti’s historic Ring. And the Eloquence re-mastering has been sympathetically done, with no obvious attempt to mask tape-hiss or otherwise enhance the original tapes; the resulting sonics are a timely reminder of just how good these Decca engineers really were.

Glazunov’s The Seasons is one of those solid, old-fashioned ballets that also allows an orchestra to shine. There are some fine modern versions – Ashkenazy and Svetlanov among them – but what this one brings to the table is a unique Gallic sound, thanks in part to those somewhat nasal woodwinds. Warmth is the key word here, even in the extremes of Winter, which only shows its age in a high noise floor; otherwise, all is present and correct, and Wolff keeps the music moving along nicely. He is rather leisurely though, which makes the cold snap last longer than I’d like, but then this is an unhurried, affectionately shaped reading that majors in elegance and charm rather than bright spectacle.

Listening to this recording one realises just how much detail and ambient information those analogue tapes contained, all of it beautifully preserved here. Rhythmically, the dances of Summer are as fresh and spontaneous as one could hope for, and it’s only in the climaxes that the bass drum seems to catch the engineers off guard. The orchestra produces rich, glowing colours in Autumn, those thumping rhythms thrilling but not overdriven. That same unhurried approach informs Wolff’s reading of the Liszt Rhapsody, its Magyar fire undimmed by the boxy mono recording. Some listeners may prefer a higher flame, but Wolff certainly turns up the heat in the exhilarating friska.

The ubiquity of Boléro has diluted its magic; more’s the pity, as some might be tempted to skip this slow-burning but very sensuous performance of Ravel’s signature piece. Orchestral timbres are very well conveyed, the side drum ideally placed in the aural soundscape. I’m as weary as anyone of these hypnotic rhythms but Wolff makes this music feel so suave and sophisticated. Some instruments do sound a tad fruity, the timps a bit odd, but it all builds to a most impressive climax, the Decca sound as wide-ranging as ever. That’s also true of Alborada del gracioso, which emerges from the speakers with tremendous weight and presence. Indeed, this is another of those performances that makes an old favourite sound newly minted. Musically and sonically I’d say this version is every bit as desirable as any in the catalogue.

Much of the second disc is devoted to what the booklet calls ‘judiciously chosen’ excerpts from Giselle, another of those staples that – for me at least – has lost its flavour over the years. I’m not sure Wolff’s reading – poised, precise – does anything to change that perception, but there’s no denying the gentle charm he finds in this score. And what’s more, his sensible speeds and phrasing would make this very danceable indeed. The Act I Pas de deux is especially buoyant, with just a hint of overload in the climaxes; the fanfares of Le chasse royale are splendid but the music is a little short of momentum. No such qualms about the March and Galop, both delectably done. One small caveat; the somewhat restricted dynamics bring audible signs of distress in the tuttis.

The harp-led Entrée et danse de Myrthe in Act II certainly caresses the ear, but not even Wolff can disguise the rumty-tum nature of the writing. That said, this is a perfectly decent performance, and one that should appeal to those with a sweet tooth. As for Weber’s Invitation to the Dance it’s also middle-of-the-road, marred only by occasional thumps – felt rather than heard – in the left channel. Surprisingly, this is a rather subdued reading; ditto the trio of dances from Falla’s Three-cornered Hat. This really needs more energy and bite than Wolff and his band can muster.

The hidden pleasure of the Eloquence reissues is their ability to renew and revitalise, rare commodities in an age of musical saturation and uniformity. This collection isn’t nearly as entertaining as Wolff’s Overtures in Hi-Fi; that said, the first disc in this dance set gets my vote.

Dan Morgan

The hidden pleasure of the Eloquence reissues is their ability to renew and revitalise, rare commodities in an age of musical saturation and uniformity.