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Adolphe ADAM (1803 – 1856) 
Le Corsaire, Ballet in 3 Acts
English Chamber Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 1992
ELOQUENCE 4828605 [2 CDs: 131:01]

Most of Adolphe Adam’s oeuvre is only known by a lucky few. That is, of course, apart from his marvellous Cantique de Noël, better known as O Holy Night, and his ballet Giselle which has featured quite a lot on stages recently. Excerpts from Le Corsaire have long been famous in ballet circles, especially the so called ‘Corsair pas de deux’, but knowledge of the ballet as such has been rather slight. Although there is still much to be done to increase awareness of his other masterpieces, this recording and recent productions of Le Corsaire make me hope that one day Adam’s entire oeuvre will receive the level of prominence and appreciation it deserves.

Adolphe Charles Adam was born into a Jewish family in 1803, his father being a composer and pianist. Adam studied at the Paris Conservatoire and then lived in London from 1830 to 1833 following the July Revolution in France. Having concentrated on comic operas at the start of his career, he soon made his ballet debut in Paris with La Fille du Danube in 1836. Giselle, which he composed five years later, is still to be found on many a stage these days. But Adam had higher ambitions: In 1847 he opened his own opera house, the Opéra National. Unfortunately, the 1849 revolution forced him to close it down and brought him into financial peril. Incidentally, this anticipated Sir Arthur Sullivan’s venture with his Royal English Opera House, whose existence was also short-lived. Indeed, both Adam and Sullivan share the rare gift of making their tuneful and heart-filling music seem to have been composed with utter ease, which made it all too easy for critics to step into the pitfall of dismissing it as trivial. In addition to the musical quality, Giselle’s enduring popularity might also be partly due to the more compelling story, for musical gems are to be found in Adam’s other ballets as well – indeed very much so in Le Corsaire, which was Adam’s last ballet, composed in 1856 shortly before he died. Fortunately, there have been a couple of new performances of the latter recently after it was revived at the Bolshoi in 2007 and given by the English National Ballet in 2013. The story of the seafarer and his beloved one is loosely based on the poem The Corsaire by Lord Byron, adapted for the libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. When they are finally able to flee from the Pasha’s clutches, they luckily survive the sinking of their ship in a ferocious storm, the demanding stage effects of which must have contributed to Le Corsaire’s unprecedented popularity.

For some time, I had been pondering the thought that someone who composed a piece as beautiful as O Holy Night was likely to have bequeathed the world other gems as well. Subsequently, I came across Adam’s La Filleule des Fées (Marco Polo 8 223734/5), and was immediately smitten by the sheer tunefulness and colourfulness of it. There are so many remarkable melodies in there that I thought it hard for another ballet to beat it, but Le Corsaire does. As one of the most prolific composers for the Paris stage, Adam was also the first to really mark the emotional connection between his music and what happened on the stage. This becomes evident in the often very sudden changes in mood, tonality, and – most prominently – in volume! The very harsh contrasts in the music might not be to everyone’s taste, and at times could make one even think that Adam was not particular good at making organic and adequate connections between themes. Bearing the purpose of ballet music in mind, however, these stark contrasts were exactly what was required to convey the story, emotions etc. in the tableaux most compellingly without spoken words. Adam fulfils the task that he had set himself – time and again – splendidly. The utter tunefulness paired with this unpredictability make his compositions a true feast for the ears. They will do anything but bore the listener, be it the first or the hundredth time they listen.

Admittedly, musically Adam broadly follows the same pattern in Le Corsaire as he did for example in La Filleule de Fées and he was not shy of copying from or elaborating on his previous compositions: It still fascinates me that the first five notes from O Holy Night pop up in the final of La Filleule des Fées (composed two years later), only to turn the theme into a different, albeit equally beautiful direction and create something distinctly charming in its own right. A tranquil harp intermezzo just before the final sets off in both La Filleule des Fées and Le Corsaire creates an anticlimactic resting point before the final frenzy. In contrast to La Filleule des Fées, however, the ascent to the climax is much more elaborate in Le Corsaire. The final theme is calmly and quietly foreshadowed before it gradually builds up into what must be one of the most romantic finales of ballet music I ever encountered. It still gives me goose pimples when I think of it.

The Australian born conductor Richard Bonynge has been known for conducting and recording many works of less known composers and has always made a point in making them available for a broad audience. Often, these recordings were done in collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra. In this present recording, the orchestra plays marvellously.

Disappointingly, the CD comes only with brief notes on the ballet, omitting information on Bonynge, the English Chamber Orchestra, and Adam altogether. However, this is made up for by the sheer quality of the recording.

Listening to Le Corsaire is a great starting point either to move on from O Holy Night and Giselle, as well as for anyone who is entirely new to Adam’s oeuvre. But be warned: Adam is addictive.

Max Burgdörfer

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