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Tribute to Madam Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Checkmate [52.25] William BOYCE (1711-1779)
The prospect before us (arr. Constant Lambert) [27.02] Gavin GORDON (1901-1970)
The Rake’s Progress [42.17] Geoffrey TOYE (1889-1942)
The haunted ballroom [29.50]
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 21-22 May 2001 (Bliss, Boyce); Golders Green Hippodrome, 23 and 26 May 2001
(Gordon, Toye) ASV WHITE LINE PRESTO CDWLS255 [79.27 + 72.07]
At the time of its original release in 2001 this double-disc album was remarkable in that it gave us, for the first time ever, complete recordings of no fewer than four ballets written for Ninette de Valois — universally known affectionately as “Madam”. They date from during her reign at Sadler's Wells, the forerunner of the current Royal Ballet. In particular it furnished a complete recording of Bliss’s ballet masterpiece Checkmate, which had previously been available only in performances of the suite extracted by the composer from the score which omitted much of the most dramatic music. Since then this unabridged Checkmate has been overtaken not only by David Lloyd-Jones’s recording of the score for Naxos — as part of that label’s survey of Bliss’s complete ballet music — but also by a most interesting DVD which coupled a stage performance of the ballet with the complete Gavin Gordon The Rake’s Progress, which had previously only been available at all in the form of a couple of rather desultory excerpts. That DVD was also conducted by Barry Wordsworth, and is a real treat for those who wish to experience these delectable works in performances which evoke their original productions. I actually encountered The Rake’s Progress at Sadler's Wells in the early 1970s, but I also remember my mother enthusing about the original staging in the 1930s. What makes this set of continuing value is the fact that it also provides a complete recording of Geoffrey Toye’s The haunted ballroom — nowadays remembered solely for its Waltz — and Constant Lambert’s arrangements of William Boyce in The prospect before us, otherwise available only in excerpts conducted by the composer in historical sound (Somm).
Comparisons between Wordsworth and Lloyd-Jones in Checkmate are fascinating. Reflecting stage experience — he describes in a booklet note how he worked with Ninette de Valois on a revival of the ballet — Wordsworth’s performance of The Black Queen dances (track 11), one of the movements omitted from the orchestral suite, is rather quicker than Lloyd-Jones. More startling is the fact that he dispatches the opening Prologue in over a minute less time than Lloyd-Jones, and very nearly two minutes less than in Vernon Handley’s Chandos recording of the suite. The sense of dramatic urgency that the faster pace brings to the music is entirely convincing, and the inclusion in this recording of the movements excised from the suite by the composer make this recording even more valuable. The use of the castanets, sounding for all the world like machine-gun fire during The Attack (track 9), brings startling echoes of the battle sequence in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. One can understand why Bliss selected the more melodically memorable movements for his suite, but it undermines the bleak unity of the score, which should be as well known in its complete form as the big Stravinsky three. The orchestral playing is stunningly virtuosic and superbly recorded.
The score adapted by Constant Lambert from various orchestral works by William Boyce for the ballet The prospect before us is altogether more inconsequential. Even so, it is interesting to learn from Noël Goodwin’s booklet notes that the ballet was hastily staged less than three weeks after the emergency evacuation of the company — abandoning all their scenery, music and costumes — from the Netherlands following the German invasion of 1940. That event is commemorated by Lambert in his orchestral work Aubade héroïque. The use of baroque models for the music obviously conjures up the influence of Stravinsky’s similar use of Pergolesi in his own ballet Pulcinella, but the iconoclastic treatment of the Russian is nowhere in evidence here. Lambert’s arrangements are very close indeed to Boyce’s originals — rather in the style of Hamilton Harty’s Water Music — not even as adventurous as Beecham’s ballets based on Handel. Only one of the twenty movements exceeds two minutes in duration, and seven occupy less than a minute. Possibly because of pressure of time at the première, Lambert resorted to literal repeats of two numbers, and these are omitted here; one should not complain. The ballet itself soon disappeared from the stage until it was revived to celebrate “Madam”’s 100th birthday in 1998. It is no masterpiece, but its presence here serves to round out our knowledge of the music of Constant Lambert even if it is no match for his other ballet scores.
Gavin Gordon, who wrote both the scenario and music for The Rake’s Progress, is known solely for this one work, although he performed both as an actor and a singer including a stage appearance in My Fair Lady. The eighteenth century Hogarth engravings — which also inspired Stravinsky in his operatic version of the same subject — are here reflected in baroque models, but Gordon is much more adventurous than Lambert in his treatment of them. His doubling of the trumpet by a Swanee whistle during the brothel scene is hilarious. Elsewhere the bubbling score has more than a hint of an Ealing comedy, but the high spirits never outstay their welcome. Only in the final scene in the madhouse is any more serious emotion hinted at, and even then with the lightest of touches. The unnamed Rake’s death at the end seems to come almost as an afterthought. One would relish the chance to hear more of Gordon’s music – another ballet entitled The death of Hector would suggest that he had other strings to his bow beyond the purely comic. I don’t suppose we need hold our breath.
Given the popularity of its waltz, The haunted ballroom is an unexpectedly sombre piece about ancestral curses based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. The opening of the first two of the three scenes is suitably atmospheric and doom-laden, but the waltz theme soon appears during the first scene, is taken up by the full orchestra during an interlude. It returns during the second scene — the most substantial section of the ballet — and then in the brief finale. There are also some short passages for offstage voices; the singers are not separately credited on the CD cover, but are listed in the booklet as Diane Atherton, Amanda Floyd, Philip Brown and Simon Preece. They produce a well-balanced sound, but I have not the slightest idea what they are singing about since no texts are provided. The remainder of the music is expertly written and scored, but Toye seems to realise that the waltz is the real ‘hit tune’ in the score and its constant recurrence undermines the atmosphere he is at pains to create elsewhere. Unlike Gavin Gordon, Toye’s other compositions appear to lie exclusively in the field of light music but his ‘radio opera’ The red pen, written in 1925 to a libretto by A.P. Herbert, must surely be one of the first ever essays in this genre.
When it was originally issued by ASV, this set did not appear to remain in the catalogues for long. We should be extremely grateful to Presto Classical for restoring it to circulation. The recording quality in both venues – no less an artist than Philip Lane is credited as producer – is absolutely superb, as is the playing. There is so much to enjoy here, nearly all of it unavailable elsewhere, that purchasers should not hesitate to snap it up now. As is usual with these reissues the original booklet, complete with illustrations of the original stage productions, is reproduced in full. Paul Corfield Godfrey