Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (1841): highlights [66:45]
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. Church of St Jude on the Hill, London, November 1994
For all his expertise in Baroque and Classical music, Sir Neville Marriner's forays into later repertoire have frequently come off as less auspicious than ambitious; nor would the Romantic ballet have seemed a fruitful area of exploration for him. That said, the first twenty minutes or so of these Giselle extracts - sensitively shaped, richly coloured, and rhythmically pointed - may well represent one of the high points of Sir Neville's symphonic discography.
Once past the vigorous opening tutti, the lyrical Introduction is airy and expansive. The woodwinds play the pastoral Les vendageurs with delicacy and point. The string phrases launching the Prince's entrance go with thrust, and the string chord at 0:15 brings a striking change of color and mood. The waltz that follows shortly thereafter is delivered with both grace and weight, and, while the conductor can't do much for the square Scène d'amour, he holds its perfumed sentiment within reasonable bounds.
After the strong, forthright tutti reprise of the Retour des vendrageurs,. the Valse is basically perky and buoyant, though the hesitant ritard at 1:42, setting up the theme's return, hesitates the wrong way. The tutti recap is a bit slapdash, less neat than the earlier statements. The pulsing string notes under the oboe in the Pas de deux also could use more point, but the brass fanfares of La Chasse are bracing.
The first-act Final doesn't maintain this high level. When the love music returns, Marriner burdens the theme with heavy tenutos, rendering it not only sentimental but puling. The climactic pages are too "vertical" in conception - oddly so from a former violinist - and the effect manages somehow to be stodgy and inflated at once.
For most of the second-act excerpts, unfortunately, Marriner reverts to his music-by-the-numbers mode. The tempi are under-animated, the rhythms square, and the conductor's perceived interest minimal. There are characterful patches here and there: the Apparition et scène de Myrthe takes on profile and point with the arrival of the waltz at 7:51 - Sir Neville certainly seems to enjoy the waltzes - and interest also revives at the middle section of the Entrée du Loys. Later in that same movement, recurring tenutos on top of a plodding tempo keep grinding the music to a halt. The textures of the Variation di Giselle are thick and oozing - they should have been much better organized.
The sound quality is pleasantly warm, though the ambience makes some of the tutti punctuations - in the Marche des vignerons, among other places - a bit overbearing.
While Giselle lacks the melodic appeal and historical importance of, say, Coppélia, it can be pleasant listening. "Complete" sets are few and far between: Zhuraitis's colourful Melodiya version is, in fact, slightly truncated, reflecting the Bolshoi Ballet's performing edition. It's certainly preferable to Karajan's much-touted Decca issue, the grey, homogenized sonorities of which are a letdown. If you want a sampling of the best bits, Ormandy (Sony Essential Classics) offers an opulent reading of about fifteen minutes' worth of Act I.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
At times the tempi are underanimated, rhythms square and the conductor's interest minimal.