My First Ballet Album
Various composers; full contents list at end of review
rec. No details given. DDD
NAXOS 8.578205 [73:32]
This is one of a batch of CDs in a 'My First Album' series. Naxos founder Klaus Heymann declares this to be "one of our most important projects with music for children." The goal is that parents buy these "albums" for their young children and get them interested in real music before the omnipresent media ruthlessly drown it out with commercial pop. Maybe Heymann would not put it quite like that, but art music, driven to the peripheries of culture by neo-liberal globalisation and post-modernisation, certainly needs as many initiatives like this as it can get, even to maintain its parlous position in the collective consciousness. What a pity these CDs are not given away by national health services to every new mother!
Each disc consists of around 15 to 25 pieces of music - bleeding chunks, to be sure - that have been specially selected (as they say) as a gentle but inspiring introduction to the subject matter: in this case ballet. Other volumes feature Tchaikovsky, the violin, the lullaby, ‘classical music’ and so on. Virtually all the music consists of single movements drawn from larger works, but throughout the series a few tracks are marked with the dread word 'extract': this usually means the music is ignominiously faded down like a pop song, which can only be counted as a black mark: if these CDs are to be "the ideal springboard for a lifelong journey through classical music", then surely children should understand from the outset that music is not meant to be faded? That full works are also frequently lengthy is not a lesson that will be learnt here either, with the average timing coming in under the three-minute mark, but that is something probably wisely left for older children. The two lengthier Tchaikovsky pieces on this disc at least point in the right direction.
The CD booklets are attractively designed with youngsters in mind. There’s a fairy-tale-style pencil/pastel drawing on the cover. There are many smaller colourful ones on every page - in this volume inevitably including a fair few ballerinas. Inside, after a brief introduction to the subject - 150 words or so - each item on the disc is allotted a 'Keyword', such as 'Cold', 'Fun', 'Yee-Ha!', 'Sword', 'March' or 'Pluck'. There’s then a paragraph of description, in straightforward language that should be intelligible to children as young as five or six, and unpatronising up to about ten or eleven. The texts enlarge on some of the things going on in the music, either as heard in the instruments or in the story itself. Generally there’s a mention of the mood of the piece and often the child is asked to listen out for something. There is usually at least one exclamation mark in every paragraph.
The blurb states that the booklet "is full of information on every piece of music", but that is a bit of an exaggeration. Most obviously, only the composer's surname is given in the main text, whereas first names - likely to be of interest to younger children - and dates of birth and death are relegated to the small print at the back of the booklet. Unfortunately, there is not even the most cursory of biographical note on any of the composers. The back of the booklet is the place to look too for details of performers, rightly judged to be of little importance to nascent listeners, but a necessary reference for parents wishing to delve further into the music, whether on their child's behalf or perhaps - why not - for themselves. The introductory to ballet says that "Here is some of the best music which has propelled dancers for hundreds of years" - a curious statement, given that the oldest item, Schubert's Rosamunde music, dates back only to 1823.
Although the topic is probably best left to sociologists, there is more than a faint whiff of gender stereotyping about some of the texts. For example, the description of Copland's Rodeo runs: "One of the cowgirls in this ballet is very lonely and so she goes to the party after the rodeo, wearing a beautiful dress: the cowboys all want to dance with her."
As far as the recordings themselves are concerned, it must be said that Naxos have drawn widely on the back catalogue bargain basement. Some are twenty years old or more and their age often shows itself in the quality of the audio, such as in the Andrew Mogrelia recordings. On the other hand, the intended audience is not hardcore audiophiles but children, who will probably not notice. Moreover, some recordings, like the Hoe-Down or Sabre Dance, have aged well. Still, there seems no obvious reason why Naxos did not use newer, better recordings - it is hard to see how there could be any copyright issues when all the music comes from their own releases.

It is commendable of Naxos to include a couple of more modern items - Stravinsky's Firebird's Dance and Shostakovich's Polka giving a digestible taste of dissonance, and Khachaturian's Sabre Dance giving some welly.
Asking a six-year-old to sit through seventy-five minutes of any music is a tall order, but in smaller doses the programme chosen here - "famous tracks as well as unexpected gems" - is probably interesting enough to keep children entertained, even if the Galop Générale from Adam's Giselle does seem a rather unmemorable choice to end the disc.
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Probably interesting enough to keep children entertained.

Full contents list
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
a Scene (from: Swan Lake) [2:37]
a Valse (from: Swan Lake) [5:50]
e Panorama (from: Sleeping Beauty) [2:40]
k March (from: The Nutcracker) [2:23]
k Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy (from: The Nutcracker) [1:48]
k Russian Dance (from: The Nutcracker) [1:09]
k Waltz of the Flowers (from: The Nutcracker) [6:44]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
b The Firebird's Dance (from: The Firebird) [1:19]
l Russian Dance (from: Petrushka) [2:49]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
c Waltz (from: Coppélia) [2:22]
c Mazurka (from: Coppélia) [4:11]
c March of the Clock (from: Coppélia) [2:55]
m Pizzicati (from: Sylvia) [2:18]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
d Hoe-Down (from: Rodeo) [3:18]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
f The Ox on the Roof (extract) [3:06]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
g Winter: Ice (from: The Seasons) [1:17]
g Summer: Waltz of the Cornflowers and the Poppies (from: The Seasons) [2:05]
g Autumn: Bacchanale (from: The Seasons) [3:49]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
h Cinderella Goes to the Ball (from: Cinderella - Suite no.1) [2:56]
h Cinderella's Waltz (from: Cinderella - Suite no.1) [2:48]
n Masks (from: Romeo and Juliet) [2:04]
n The Montagues and the Capulets (extract) (from: Romeo and Juliet) [1:58]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
i Rosamunde - Ballet Music no.2 (extract) [3:16]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
j Sabre Dance (from: Gayane - Suite no.2) [2:26]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
o Polka (from: The Golden Age - Suite) [1:54]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
p Galop Générale (from: Giselle) [3:14]
a,i,k Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Halász
b BRT Philharmonic Orchestra / Alexander Rahbari
c Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Mogrelia
d Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra / Stephen Gunzenhauser
e,g,p Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra / Ondr(ej Lenárd
f Orchestre National de Lille / Jean-Claude Casadesus
h Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra / Theodore Kuchar
j St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra / André Anichanov
l Philharmonia Orchestra / Robert Craft
m Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Mogrelia
n Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra Košice / Andrew Mogrelia
o New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Christopher Lyndon-Gee