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Battles in Music
rec. venues and dates unspecified
NAXOS 8.578293-94 [2 CDs: 145:32]

"Battles in music" makes an eye-catching title for this collection of 22 orchestral pieces or extracts, each penned by a different composer and spread over two discs. It is not, though, an entirely accurate one, for, strictly speaking, only half of the tracks give us musical depictions of battles, if, in using that word, we adopt the accepted definition of substantial armies meeting face to face on a field of conflict.

Seven real historical battles are presented. They are heard in depictions by Beethoven (Vitoria - or Vittoria as the composer spelled it - 1813, with lots of cannon and muskets popping away), Tchaikovsky (Poltava, 1709), Roy Harris (Gettysburg, 1863), Prokofiev (Lake Peipus, 1242 - massed heavy cavalry), Khachaturian (Stalingrad, 1942-3 - lots of artillery), Shostakovich (Seelov Heights, 1945 - giant tanks and even more big guns) and Max Steiner (Little Big Horn, 1876). Two further tracks, by Leonardo Balada (Guernica, 1937) and Eric Coates (the "dam busters" raid, 1943), portray more real-life clashes, even if they were not actually battles on the ground but attacks from the air with, at least in the first case, no defensive response offered at all.

We also hear four completely imaginary battles as envisaged by Kodaly (The battle and defeat of Napoleon from the Háry János suite), Smetana (Šárka from Má vlast), Rimsky-Korsakov (King Dodon on the battlefield from The golden cockerel) and Richard Strauss (The hero's field of battle from Ein Heldenleben).

As already noted, a "battle" really has to be an encounter of some size, but Naxos moves the goalposts somewhat by including a couple of conflicts that were really little more than "skirmishes" involving just a few dozen combatants - and fictitious ones, to boot. The composers in those cases are Korngold (The adventures of Robin Hood) and Alfred Newman (Beau Geste), both working in Hollywood where, in the days before CGI technology, a plot confrontation between just 20 or 30 fighting men added significantly less to a film's costs than did a full "army" of extras.

Other tracks relate simply to themes of warfare in general, rather than to specific battles of whatever scale. Holst's Mars from The planets is here, as is Liszt's Hungarian battle march, Janáček's The death of Andrij from Taras Bulba, Debussy's Berceuse héroďque, Ippolitov-Ivanov's Georgian war march from his second suite of Caucasian sketches and Wagner's The ride of the Valkyries.

Naxos also adds a "battle" from Delibes's Coppélia, which seems more than a little odd in a ballet where any conflict is strictly good-natured and confined to that between the sexes. It's true that the score includes an Act 3 divertissement sometimes known as La discorde et la guerre but, in that jolly Second Empire rom-com, it bears no relation whatsoever to real warfare of the blood-and-guts variety. In fact, it's sometimes omitted altogether from modern productions of the ballet or occasionally, when it is included, re-allocated and re-titled. The Royal Ballet's much-loved 1996 performance with Leanne Benjamin and Carlos Acosta (Opus Arte DVD OA 0813 D), for example, lists it simply and much more appropriately as Franz's solo. Nevertheless, Delibes always pens a fine tune, and this one adds some rather welcome foot-tapping sparkle to the grimmer elements in this collection.

This is not, then, a serious examination of how composers depict battles. Such an academic exercise could certainly have been undertaken but might well have been a rather dry exercise and of interest primarily to academic musicologists. Instead this release is an opportunity for Naxos to plunder its extensive back catalogue and to repackage existing material under a general portmanteau heading.

While the accompanying booklet - with brief but usefully informative notes by my MusicWeb International colleague Jonathan Woolf - is reticent to the point of complete silence on the recordings' origins, the copyright dates given on the disc's back cover reveal them to be pretty evenly spaced out between 1989 and 2014. In truth, though, Naxos's commitment to high quality sound has been so consistent over the years that I think you'd be hard put to distinguish the older material from the more recently produced tracks.

Given that such a mixture of artists is involved, the standard of execution demonstrated on these discs is pretty uniformly high. Several tracks stood out from the rest for me, though others will no doubt have their own favourites. Balada's hauntingly effective Guernica, an evocation of the ruthlessness and sheer terror of the infamous Luftwaffe attack on an undefended Spanish town during that country's 1930s civil war. In MusicWeb International reviews of an earlier incarnation of this very account, it was rightly described by Hubert Culot as "an impressive achievement" and by Paul Shoemaker as "a masterpiece". The battle on the ice from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky also makes a strong impact, with an idiomatic contribution from the chorus and a huge sense of propulsive urgency from conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, while his colleague Ondrej Lenárd and his Slovak orchestra demonstrate an innate empathy with Liszt's idiom, cimbalom and all, in that composer’s Hungarian battle march. Debussy's elegiac Berceuse héroďque receives a performance full of atmosphere from the Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl, and the always impressive Antoni Wit leads a passionate and expertly played account of Šárka that made me want to hear the rest of his Má vlast cycle. While I'm at it, I'd also like to hear both Andrew Mogrelia's complete take on Coppélia and Gerhard Markson's on Ein Heldenleben. On the basis if the extracts here, I'd anticipate enjoying both enormously.

It is difficult to guess the target market for such a mixed bag of material, other, perhaps, than war-gaming schoolboys of all ages. I suspect that Naxos is being more canny with this release than at first appears. What we have here is actually an effective sampler for their wider catalogue and a showcase for some of their regular artists. If Battles in music entices purchasers to go beyond its brief extracts and to explore individual works in more depth - on the Naxos label - I imagine that the company's commander-in-chief Klaus Heymann and his general staff will be more than a little pleased with the outcome of the whole campaign.

Rob Maynard

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Wellingtons Sieg oder Die Schlacht bei Vittoria, op.91 (1813) I. The battle [8:12]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The battle of Poltava from Mazeppa (1883) [5:54]
Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
Guernica (1966) [11:20]
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Symphony no.6 Gettysburg (1944) II. Conflict [6:14]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, op.78 (1938) The battle on the ice [12:12]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The planets, op.32 (1914), I. Mars, the bringer of war [6:57]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Háry János suite (1926), IV. The battle and defeat of Napoleon [4:04]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
The adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The battle - The duel - The victory [5:36]
Aram Il'yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
The battle of Stalingrad suite (1950), IV. For our motherland; To the attack! Eternal glory to the heroes [6:35]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian battle march, S119/R437 (1875) [4:47]
Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The dambusters march (1954) [3:53]
Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The fall of Berlin, op.82 (1950) (ed. Adriano), XI. Storming Seelov Heights [6:26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Berceuse héroďque (1915) [4:56]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Taras Bulba, JW VI/15 (1918), I. The death of Andrij [9:12]
Alfred NEWMAN (1901-1970)
Beau Geste (1939) (reconstructed by William Stromberg), VI. Battle [3:16]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Ma vlast (1879), III. Šárka [10:02]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia (1870), Act 3 - La discorde et la guerre [3:39]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The golden cockerel (1907), King Dodon on the battlefield [4:21]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, op.40 (1898), IV. The hero's field of battle [9:38]
Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV (1859-1935)
Caucasian sketches suite no.2, op.45 (1896), IV. Georgian war march [4:53]
Max STEINER (1888-1971)
They died with their boots on (1941), XXII. Little Big Horn [6:44]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870), Act 3 - The ride of the valkyries [5:26]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ondrej Lenárd (Beethoven, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ippolitov-Ivanov)
Barcelona National and Catalonia National Orchestra/Ondrej Lenárd (Tchaikovsky)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Salvador Más i Conde (Balada)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (Harris)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky (Prokofiev)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones (Holst)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz (Kodály)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg (Korngold, Newman, Steiner)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano (Khachaturian)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper (Coates)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Adriano (Shostakovich)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl (Debussy)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit (Janáček)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit (Smetana)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia (Delibes)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Gerhard Markson (Strauss)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Uwe Mund (Wagner)