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Les Ballets Russes - Volume 3
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892-4) [10:36]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) [28:45]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pétrouchka (1911) [36:57]
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. 2002/07

The association with the Ballets Russes isn't all that these scores have in common. We may think of Debussy as "impressionist", while Schmitt's bolder scoring sounds distinctly post-Wagnerian; but the two composers share a fluid harmonic idiom and a knack for shaping gracefully curving motifs, particularly for the woodwinds. To hear Pétrouchka, in turn, in this company underlines the Gallic clarity of its orchestral textures, busy as they sometimes get, and of its thematic fragments.

The opening of the Faune worried me: heavy, the flute and horn solos are laboured, and the pause at 0:38 feels endless. After that, however, Sylvain Cambreling fashions a spontaneous-sounding, sensuous interpretation that gives full play to the score's shimmering orchestral palette. There's enough breathing room in the tempos to allow the conductor good control, notably in the tricky three-against-two passage at 5:45, where he subtly resets the co-ordination at the start of each new phrase. The climaxes are full and lush, but never thick. There's an anomaly at 3:03, where the two flutes, repeating a phrase, play an A-natural where they'd just played an A-sharp; is this some new alternative reading, or a unison blooper?

In Pétrouchka, Cambreling's pacing feels restrained, but it's not slow -- just firmly grounded, in a way that allows details of counterpoint and articulation to enrich the textures. The rhythmic displacements at 0:48 sound nervous, but the opening paragraph is more assured than in several higher-profile accounts (Solti/Decca, Rozhdestvensky/Nimbus). In the "organ-grinder" episode after 2:23 all the musical elements, especially the little trills, register clearly. The woodwinds, a bit later, have time to "place" really crisp staccati, instead of just flicking them. At 6:05 in the Moor scene, rhythmic bowed tremolos subtly propel things forward.

For all the conductor's attention to detail, however, his performance has plenty of character, both musical and pictorial. The tutti chords at 3:48 of track 7 are splashy and cheerful, while the woodwind solos at 9:01 are tender. Bracing accents effectively mark the shifts to the second and third tableaux; at 1:21 of track 8, woodwinds and piano set an eerie, austere mood that's maintained as the textures become more active. The trumpet solo in the Moor's episode is fleet: the Ballerina is apparently an expert player. Only the closing tableau, with the dancing bear and all, sounds routine, though lively.

La Tragédie de Salomé is similarly characterful. In the opening, sinuous woodwind soli unfold over calm, slow string pulses. At the start of the Danse des perles, the pizzicatos are springy and energetic, if a bit boomy, while the lighter contrasting episode is charming. In Les enchantements sur la mer, the undulating rhythms and the horn phrases at 1:36 evoke Debussy's sea. The women's chorus that enters at 7:13 of the same movement sounds clear; when the orchestra enters, it's firm, but light and supportive. The chords of the Danse des éclairs are compact and rhythmic, and turbulent tuttis propel the music to the finish.

Cambreling leans into the score's climaxes with a nice sweep. Unfortunately, the engineers have allowed a couple of the percussion-heavy ones - as early as 5:08 of the piece, and again at 6:14 of track 4 - to sound harsh, edgy and aggressive. This sound is, simply, neither musical nor authentic, and it spoils the production for me. It's distressing still to be hearing this sort of thing some thirty-five years into the digital era. Have everyone's ears - producers', engineers', conductors' - become so de-sensitized that no-one notices? The irony is that, in the other two works and elsewhere in this piece, there are no such problems: the sound is full, vivid, and "deep".

Thus, for all this programme's strengths, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. I was astonished, upon checking Amazon, to find quite a few digital accounts of the Schmitt, which I don't know; for now, I'll stick with my venerable RCA LP, with Antonio de Almeida leading the New Philharmonia - remember the "New Philharmonia"? - in a prosaic but rich-toned performance. The analogue era also accounts for most of my favoured versions of the other two scores: Ansermet (Decca) and Previn's analogue (EMI - it's not the one reissued in Warner's 100 Best Ballet box) in the Debussy; Ozawa (RCA), Ansermet again (Decca) and Mehta's digital (Sony) in the Stravinsky.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.


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