Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) Giselle, ballet in two Acts (1841) [97:56]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Nicolette Fraillon
rec. February & October 2013, January & February 2015, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania ABC CLASSICS 481 1710 [2 CDs: 49:02 + 48:54 + 14:15
Over the past few years I've watched and reviewed a succession of DVDs of staged performances of Giselle. Meanwhile, however, hardly any CD accounts of just the music have come my way.
Such an imbalance in favour of DVDs over CDs isn't, however, typical of the way in which ballet recordings are made available to consumers these days. There are, for instance, just a handful of danced performances of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on DVD - but buyers can choose between dozens of recorded music-only accounts of its masterly score. Have, therefore, the recording industry's experts come to the conclusion that Giselle's appeal is primarily visual? That its score is, by implication, hardly worth listening to in its own right? Or that, at the very least, the music is simply not very popular?
It's certainly true that there's a sizeable body of music lovers who, influenced, perhaps, by the ubiquity of Tchaikovsky's three scores, seem to consider that "real" ballet began with that composer's revolutionary reinvention of the form. By introducing a more sophisticated, complex, "symphonic" style that utilised the full resources and colours of the late 19th century orchestra - while simultaneously bringing into play his supreme melodic gifts - he proved expertly able to manipulate the full range of his audience's emotions. After listening to Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, many listeners find earlier ballet scores small beer: relatively unsophisticated, ephemeral and unworthy of much serious consideration.
And they are certainly not alone. Professional critics too have sometimes been positively damning about Adam's music. Mark Carroll's useful booklet notes for this release remind us, for instance, that the first edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed Giselle's melodies as "frequently trivial to the point of absolute vulgarity". And while that opinion was expressed as far back as 1889, it was only a couple of years ago that one Internet critic of a CD recording could memorably describe some elements of the score as "droopy" and having the impact of weak tea.
Even when others have offered more rounded judgments, they have sometimes been pretty qualified in their praise. Thus, while the pioneering dance commentator and historian Cyril W. Beaumont thought highly enough of Giselle to devote a well-regarded monograph to it, he still considered that its appeal owed less to Adam's score per se than to, firstly, a compelling storyline that, if well acted, can be genuinely affecting and, secondly, the charm and beauty of its traditional choreography - especially that in the second Act. He thought that the music was only noteworthy because of its practicality in relation to the on-stage action. "By no stretch of the imagination", he wrote, "can [it]... be called great music, but it cannot be denied that it is admirably suited to its purpose. It is danceable, and it has colour and mood attuned to the various dramatic situations. Again, since ballet is a composite art, it is not altogether fair to consider music apart from the dancing with which it is intended it shall be fused, for only in actual performance can the worth of a musical score - as ballet music - be assessed at its full value" (Cyril W. Beaumont The ballet called Giselle [London, 1944] p. 56).
Exactly that same dichotomy was more recently highlighted by Robert Greskovic when he observed that "Many people fairly deplore Adolphe Adam's music for Giselle... The ballet's admirers remind us, however, how alive and substantive the music becomes when heard, as it was intended, alongside the dancing" (Robert Greskovic Ballet: a Complete Guide [London, 2000] p. 300).
Of course, as Mr Greskovic's words remind us, there are some listeners who think somewhat more highly of Adam's score. Jennifer Homans, for instance, describes the music as "sweetly melodic", although the fact that she also describes it - rightly - as "programmatic" surely suggests that she too suspects that it only makes its full impact when accompanying the action on stage (Jennifer Homans Apollo's Angels: a History of Ballet [London, 2010] p. 166).
But even those with something positive to say about Giselle's score might have good reason to think that it's not actually worth recording again. After all, for decades the catalogue has boasted several versions that remain, for many listeners, unsurpassed. One is an excitingly theatrical 1959 recording from Anatole Fistoulari and the London Symphony Orchestra (Mercury 434 365-2). A second, albeit frustratingly abridged to just 69:15, is the well-known account set down in 1962 by the luxury casting of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan (Decca 417 738-2). A quite outstanding third version comes from Richard Bonynge and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, superbly recorded in 1986 (Decca 478 3625).
Even though Bonynge enjoys a definite advantage over at least von Karajan, because his account is complete, that very fact raises another point. The full score of Giselle is too long to fit on a single CD. However, it doesn't fill two discs to capacity and certainly leaves space for something extra. Decca offers nothing more on that Bonynge set and, unfortunately, neither do most of the other complete Giselles on my shelves. Such tight-fisted releases include Bonynge's earlier 1967 recording with the Orchestre National de l'Opera de Monte-Carlo (Decca Eloquence - review) and others featuring the Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Kopylov (1987, Melodiya MEL CD 10 01621), the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Algis Zhuraitis (1992?, IMP Classics DPCD 1007), the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Mark Ermler (1993, Royal Opera House ROH 007) and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia (1994, Naxos 8.550755-6).
An honourable mention, on the other hand, should go to the aforementioned Mercury/Fistoulari recording which is substantially supplemented by Antal Dorati's 1957 accounts of Strauss's Graduation ball and Offenbach's Gaîté Parisienne. Similarly, the 1972 London Festival Ballet Orchestra/Terence Kern performance (EMI Classics - review) adds bonuses of Drigo's pas de deux from Le corsaire from the same artists and The kingdom of the shades from Minkus's La bayadère performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery.
In that context, I'm pleased to see that the new two-disc set under review also provides us with something extra and it's quite an intriguing - and, as far as I'm aware, unique - addition. Reflecting, perhaps, Nicolette Fraillon's history of more than two decades as something of a specialist in conducting for dancers at the National Ballet of the Netherlands, the Finnish Ballet, West Australian Ballet and, since 2002, The Australian Ballet, as well as the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's regular performances in such repertoire, we are offered 10 extra tracks reprising some of the numbers. As the booklet explains: "In classical ballets like Giselle, over time, different versions of the solos for the main characters have been created. These require different speeds, relating to the choreography and to the physicality and technique of the dancers. The... [additional] tracks present different versions of some of the solos, as would be performed by the orchestra for the alternate casts of dancers during a theatre season of Giselle". Thus we hear, from Act 1, different takes on the boy's first and second variations and the girl's first variation from the Peasant pas de deux, followed by two extra versions of Giselle's variation. From Act 2, we are offered alternative versions of Giselle's entrance and variation and of the first Giselle/Albrecht pas de deux, before moving on to their second pas de deux from which we are offered a contrasting approach to the second half, as well as of Albrecht's variation and Giselle's variation. This is, at least to committed balletomanes, quite fascinating stuff. It is also indicative of how this full performance is one that's genuinely reflective of the needs of real dancers - and thus of an authentic theatrical experience. It's a pity that such an imaginative idea wasn't embraced even further: as it is, those 10 extra tracks add only an extra 14:15 to disc 2 and still leave almost 20 minutes of unused running time. I'd certainly have enjoyed hearing a few more similar instances of how the accompaniment to on-stage performances can be modified to fit dancers' individual abilities and requirements.
As already noted, Nicolette Fraillon is music director and chief conductor of The Australian Ballet and this release's cover is emblazoned with that company's name and logo as well as a photograph of a couple of its star dancers. It would seem a reasonable assumption, therefore, that this recorded performance reflects the way in which the company dances Giselle. I've not seen the Australians in this repertoire but, by sheer coincidence, on the day I was writing this review The Times newspaper carried a profile of TAB which suggests that, geographically somewhat cut off from European and American influence, its dancers have developed a distinctive style of their own. The company's artistic director David McAllister notes how audiences are struck by the "optimism and sense of can-do about our dancers, even in the classical repertoire... [our] men [are] more muscular and the women very athletic and powerful... I think there's a sense of the brightness and newness of Australia that comes through in the quality of the dance" (The Times, Arts p. 8, 4 July 2016).
Those characteristics of brightness and newness emerge strongly in this performance which - despite apparently being recorded in sessions stretching over no less than two years - has a distinct and attractive whiff of drama and genuine theatricality about it. At innumerable points throughout the score the obviously accomplished Ms. Fraillon gives us unexpected little touches - a slight slowing down here, an extra pause there - that derive, I imagine, from the need to accommodate real dancers up on the stage. Hers is less a self-indulgent performance than a rock solid and entirely idiomatic one that remains consistently true to the spirit and origins of Adam's score. It's also extremely well played. Many readers will already know the work of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra via its supporting contributions to - as it currently stands - 14 of the 68 discs in Hyperion's The Romantic Piano C oncerto series. It is clearly a very skilled group of musicians and plays here with a lively buoyancy that is winningly combined with a degree of sensitivity and refinement that aren't always apparent in performances of Giselle. That's not to say, though, that this is in any sense a lightweight performance. Ms. Fraillon eschews excessive ("droopy"?) sentimentality at such potentially twee episodes as Giselle's plucking flower petals in Act 1, while giving the muscular brass and percussion its head to make a strong impression at moments of both high drama and rustic jollifications.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there have been plenty of releases of danced performances of Giselle on both DVD and Blu-ray in recent years. It's a pleasant change, therefore, to welcome a CD set that focuses exclusively on the score. Having listened to it - as well as some of those competing versions - several times, I cannot be anything like as dismissive of Adam's score as either Cyril Beaumont or the author of the Grove entry. It is not only, as Messrs Beaumont and Greskovic each concede, exceptionally fit for its practical purpose but it actually offers, along the way, plenty of attractive, memorable and well-orchestrated music. If you are looking to add Giselle to your CD collection, this version is certainly well worth serious consideration.