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Royal Ballet Gems: Sir Frederick Ashton Creations
André Charles Prosper MESSAGER (1853-1929)

The two pigeons (arr. John Lanchbery, 1961) [62:16]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Dante Sonata (arr. Constant Lambert, 1940) [15:55]
Jonathan Higgins (piano: Liszt)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
rec. 7-9, 14-15 July 2003, Sony Music Studios, London
ALTO ALC1302 [78:11]

This disc first appeared over ten years ago as part of a batch celebrating the work of the choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904-1988). Its reappearance is timely as the Royal Ballet is about (in January 2016) to mount the first revival of The two pigeons for thirty years.

The score is basically by André Messager, who is one of those second-rank composers which France seems to produce in such profusion. His music is charming, beautifully crafted and without any pretensions to profundity. The two pigeons, or rather Les deux pigeons, was based on a fable by La Fontaine about two pigeons, one of which goes off in search of adventures. Messager’s version features two lovers, Pépio and Gourouli. Pépio goes off with gypsies but it doesn’t work out and he returns to Gourouli. It was first produced in 1886. Ashton used a shortened version of the score, which John Lanchbery prepared, revising some of the scoring and providing a new final scene, drawn from Messager’s works, to fit Ashton’s scenario. This opened in 1961 and has been fairly often revived though not, as I noted, for many years in London.

The music is varied and delightful and must be very rewarding to dance to. There is a succession of short numbers, fast and slow, gay and a little grave, but nothing is too emotional or demanding. It is beautifully played by this expert ballet team. It makes attractive listening but what it is not is memorable. It does, however, whet the appetite to see the ballet. The forthcoming revival is apparently going to be filmed so balletomanes might want to see if that is commercially issued.

Some people may be interested in this disc particularly because of the last track. The Dante sonata is a transcription for piano and orchestra of the work formally known as Après une lecture de Dante: fantasia quasi sonata, from Book II of the Années de pèlerinage. Constant Lambert, now best known for his brilliant The Rio Grande, was an expert ballet conductor and also a great admirer of Liszt. He made this transcription for Ashton’s choreography, and the ballet showed Children of Light, repentant sinners, in conflict with Children of Darkness, whose bodies were entwined with snakes. Incidentally I am surprised that Lambert, while he was about it, did not re-title it Dante Concerto. In making this version he was giving Liszt the same compliment that Liszt had paid Schubert, when he orchestrated Schubert's Wanderer fantasia also for piano and orchestra. The orchestration adds heft rather along Rachmaninovian lines to support and sometimes replace the piano at climaxes, but much of the piano part is unchanged. It is a shame that it is not better known, but the score is unpublished, whereas that of the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer fantasia is readily available. Jonathan Higgins copes very capably with the piano part but the orchestra is a bit splashy and the balance is not as good as in the Messager. Still, this is the only modern recording and many Lisztians may be glad to have it.

When this originally appeared, on ASV Sanctuary’s White Line label, it was paired with another disc containing Rawsthorne’s Madame Chrysanthème and Gordon Jacob’s Couperin suite Harlequin in the Street. We must hope that this will also reappear, along with a reissue of the companion disc on Dutton (CDLX 7149) with Lambert’s other Liszt ballet Apparitions along with other delights.

Stephen Barber

Track details for The Two Pigeons
Act I
Introduction [4:28]
Scène 2 – Entrée de Mikalia [1:40]
Scène 3 – Entrée de Pépio [1:36]
Pas de deux pigeons [3:48]
Danse des jeunes filles [1:02]
Allegro agitato [1:28]
Scène 4 – Entrée des Bohémiens [3:04]
Musique de scène [0:30]
Theme (et Variations) [1:35]
Variation 1 [1:08]
Variation 2 [0:47]
Variation finale [2:14]
Musique de scène [4:56]

Act II
Prélude [3:24]
Valse [3:37]
Divertissement [2:38]
Gourouli seule [2:01]
Variation de M. Vasques [0:53]
Danse Bohémienne [3:48]
Finale [3:31]
Le Retour [13:48]



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