Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Complete Ballet Music from the Operas
Complete contents listed at end of review
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. 15-17 May 2011, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
NAXOS 8.572818-19 [54:09 + 61:13]
See also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey
What a shame that most of Verdi’s ballet music – primarily written to satisfy Parisian audiences – is rarely heard these days, especially when it’s so irresistibly tuneful. Indeed, as José Serebrier points out in his excellent liner-notes these ‘bolt-ons’ have occasionally been pressed into service elsewhere, most notably in Jerome Robbins’ 1979 ballet The Four Seasons. Listening to this effervescent set it’s not difficult to see why; Verdi was a melodist supreme, an instinctive man of the theatre, and that shines through in this recording. It’s also heartening to hear the Bournemouth band – which enjoyed something of a renaissance under Marin Alsop – in such electric form.
The thrustful, swaggering Ballabile from the Act III of Otello – penned for the Paris premiere in 1894 – makes a splendid introduction to the set. Serebrier finds a thrilling momentum and ceremonial whirl here, the music capped by a hefty, crowd-pleasing bass-drum thwack. What a pleasure it is to discover that Naxos have produced a recording of untrammelled weight and range. The same musical and aural delights are apparent in the ballet music from Macbeth, revised for Paris in 1865. This may be slightly less memorable than that for Otello, but there’s an unmistakable undertow here, the music firmly rooted in the drama that surrounds it; indeed, those regal and impassioned perorations are simply glorious.
Jérusalem, which began life in 1843 as I Lombardi, was retitled and revised for Paris four years later. It’s disconcerting to discover that some of this ballet music is very similar to that of the partying Parisians in La Traviata (1853). That’s especially so in the deftly articulated – and convivial – Pas de quatre and the sparkling Pas de deux, whose frothiness hardly seems appropriate to a sober tale centred on the Crusades. Nevertheless, Verdi’s score is delivered with energy and polish, the melting, harp-led tunes of the Pas de solo most beautifully written and played.
The first CD ends with a substantial ballet from the original – French – version of Don Carlo. This too is unremittingly dramatic and, at times, most exquisitely scored. Serebrier and his band invest the music with a limpid beauty and rhythmic pliancy that just underscores Verdi’s gift for simple –yet heartfelt – tunes. There’s heaving passion and bright majesty as well, and the Naxos engineers have done a magnificent job capturing the noble fanfares and dynamically impressive tuttis. Indeed, I’d say this is the most spectacular Naxos sound I’ve heard in a long time; bravos all round.
The ballet music from Aida is unusual in that it’s an integral part of the action and not just a fashionable accessory. Predictably it gets a rousing performance on this CD, the sinuous arabesques of the Act I ballet wonderfully atmospheric. Verdi had to bow to convention once more with Il trovatore, revised and retitled Le trouvère for Paris in 1856. The flashing gypsy rhythms are very well managed, and even if there’s a hint of rumty-tumtiness at times there’s no mistaking the hot blood that courses through the veins. The real delight is listening to the orchestra play as if their natural home were a theatre pit; in fact, it’s hard to imagine these scores more idiomatically played.
One might be forgiven for thinking that two hours of this fare would be tedious, but when the level of invention and the standard of musicianship are this high the time just flies by. Part of the secret is that Serebrier creates and sustains a powerful sense of theatre, the wild Galop (tr. 10) crying out for applause and an encore; all I can say is, thank heavens for the repeat button. After the fizz and fun of this finale the integral ballet music from Les vêpres siciliennes – written for Paris in 1855 – has a clear structure and strong narrative. A depiction of the four seasons, the first part – L’inverno – has the assurance and sweep of a piece by Glazunov or Tchaikovsky. As for La primavera it’s blessed with a spontaneity and lift – a natural danceability – that’s hard to resist, while L’estate is most elegantly phrased; the changeability of autumn is evoked in music of felicity and strength.
There’s not a duff note or dull moment in the entire set, Verdi’s prodigious talents matched at every turn by those of Serebrier and his first-rate players. This is fresh, spontaneous music-making, whose dramatic peaks – while emphatic – are never coarse or overdriven. The Naxos engineers deserve plenty of praise too, as the fine sound adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of these vital scores.
Two hours of pure, unadulterated pleasure.
Dan Morgan
Two hours of pure, unadulterated pleasure.

Complete contents

CD 1
Otello (1887; Paris premiere 1894)
Act III Scene 7: Ballabile [5:37]
Macbeth (excerpts) (1847; French version 1865)
Act III Scene 1: Ballo I [2:27]
Act III Scene 1: Ballo II [4:38]
Act III Scene 1: Ballo III [3:11]
Jerusalem (excerpts) (1843; Paris revision 1847)
Act III Scene 1: Pas de quatre [7:40]
Act III Scene 1: Pas de deux [5:33]
Act III Scene 1: Pas de solo [5:49]
Act III Scene 1: Pas d'ensemble [2:34]
Don Carlos (Paris, 1886)
Act III Scene 2: Ballo della regina, ‘La Peregrina’ [16:41]
CD 2
Aida (excerpts) (1871)
Act I Scene 2: Dance No. 3: Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse [2:30]
Act II Scene 1: Dance No. 4: Danza dei piccoli schiavi mori [1:38]
Act II Scene 2: Dance No. 5: Ballabile [4:44]
Il trovatore (excerpts) (1853; Paris version 1856)
Act III Scene 1: Pas des Bohémiens [1:54]
Act III Scene 1: Gitanilla [2:30]
Act III Scene 1: Ensemble [1:34]
Act III Scene 2: Sevillana [4:05]
Act III Scene 2: Echo du soldat [2:58]
Act III Scene 2: La Bohémienne [7:20]
Act III Scene 2: Galop [2:31]
Les vêpres siciliennes (excerpts) (1855)
Act III Scene 2: Le quattro stagioni: L'inverno [6:36]
Act III Scene 2: Le quattro stagioni: La primavera [7:51]
Act III Scene 2: Le quattro stagioni: L'estate [5:41]
Act III Scene 2: Le quattro stagioni: L'autunno [9:22]