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Jewels Of The French Ballet
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Gaîeté Parisienne (1938) – extracts (arr. Manuel Rosenthal) [24:33]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust (1859) – ballet music [10:08]
Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
La fille mal gardée (1960) - clog dance (arr. John Lanchbery) [3:04]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (1841) – extracts [10:44]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia (1870) – extracts [14:16]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Les sylphides (1936) (arr. Roy Douglas) [15:48]
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Georg Solti (Offenbach, Gounod), John Lanchbery (Herold)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (Delibes, Chopin)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (Adam)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London (Offenbach, Gounod, Hérold), Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin (Delibes, Chopin), Sofiensaal, Vienna (Adam); May 1960 (Offenbach, Gounod), April 1961 (Delibes, Chopin), September 1961 (Adam), February/March 1962 (Hérold)
ALTO ALC1386 [79:00]

While this new and very well-filled release will no doubt – and quite justifiably – delight many listeners, it will also, in some respects, frustrate many others.

The frustration will be caused by issues entirely of presentation. The CD’s rear cover gets us off to a disconcertingly abrupt start by listing the artists thus: “Solti & Lanchbery / Covent Garden – Karajan / Berlin & Vienna Philharmonic”. Meanwhile, the back page of the enclosed booklet informs us even less helpfully that Karajan’s musical partners are simply “Berlin and Vienna”. Do “Solti”, “Lanchbery” and “Karajan” not have first names? Presumably “Covent Garden” is shorthand for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House? May we assume that “Berlin & Vienna” are references to those cities’ respective Philharmonic Orchestras? These may seem frivolous criticisms, but I can easily imagine this disc appealing to people dipping a tentative toe into classical music and they surely deserve to be accorded a little more respect than that.

More knowledgeable collectors will be frustrated even more by the complete absence of information as to which orchestra or conductor is responsible for which tracks. Although a couple of glowing contemporary reviews quoted on the rear cover may suggest that Solti leads the Royal Opera House’s orchestra in the Faust ballet music and that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karajan plays the Coppélia extracts, the only other even minimally helpful information we’re offered is that the Offenbach/Rosenthal, Gounod and Hérold/Lanchbery tracks were originally released on Decca, while DGG (as it then was) recorded the Delibes and Chopin/Douglas. Carefully affixing my Hercule Poirot moustache, I have cross-referenced my extensive collection of ballet CDs – for much of this material has been previously re-released elsewhere – and undertaken some annoyingly time-consuming internet research. My provisional deductions/suppositions regarding orchestras and conductors are indicated on the listings above. The point is, though, that I would not to have had to waste my time doing so if the disc had been properly annotated in the first place.

The standard of proof reading, meanwhile, is quite frankly risible. While both the rear cover and the disc itself inform us that we are listening to “Jewels from French ballet”, the booklet’s cover not only opts to call it “Jewels of French Ballet” but even rubs in the point by italicising that newly introduced “of”. Meanwhile, when the information stamped on the surface of the disc itself informs us that the recordings are “stereo 1960/62”, what are we to make of the last page of the booklet’s claim that the original recordings were actually issued in 1960 and 1961? Command of the French language is clearly not a strong point either as, while we quite properly find “Gaîeté” and “Coppélia” on the front cover, the incorrect variants “Gaité” and “Coppelia” are printed on the rear and elsewhere.

Shoddy presentation notwithstanding, however, once you get the disc into your CD player it will, I’m sure, offer a great deal of delight. Alto has sourced some superb performances, at least a few of which will already, no doubt, be on many balletomanes’ shelves. The original recordings were, of course, first issued long before the Internet – let alone MusicWeb – was even thought of, so in most cases this material has never been fully considered here. When, however, Solti’s recordings of Offenbach/Rosenthal and Gounod were re-released more than a decade ago, they provoked differing reactions from two members of our team. John Phillips considered that the conductor’s “well-known ability to make an orchestra sparkle… [made this] one of the best performances of these two items in the catalogue. Solti has the orchestra playing on the edge of their seats” (review). On the other hand, while certainly enjoying the Gounod, Stephen Francis Vasta was less impressed with what he perceived as Solti’s temperamental disinclination to relax in the Offenbach/Rosenthal (review). Having just listened once again to one of the best-loved recordings of Gaîeté Parisienne – that by the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler (RCA Red Seal 82876 66419 2) – I certainly appreciate Stephen’s concern that what he calls Solti’s “highly-strung… interpretative makeup” might not necessarily suit this repertoire, but I also hear the end result as an entirely acceptable, even if somewhat less amiable, account of Manuel Rosenthal’s delectable concoction.

John Lanchbery’s 1983 complete recording of La fille mal gardée (my own copy is on Decca Ovation 430 849-2) has understandably superseded the disc of excerpts that the arranger recorded shortly after the ballet’s hugely-successful 1960 premiere. Alto has, though, turned to the latter in sourcing the famous ‘Clog dance’. A perennial favourite on the long-running BBC radio series Your Hundred Best Tunes, this performance captures the ballet’s warmly comic tone and, as recorded here by the original re-arranger of Hérold’s music, is entirely idiomatic and, indeed, definitive. Anyone familiar with the vintage BBC film of a shortened version of the ballet featuring its original cast (review) will smile as they listen to the (literally) foot-tapping tune and recall Stanley Holden’s side-splitting yet subtly nuanced performance as Widow Simone.

In his authoritative study Herbert von Karajan: a life in music [London, 1998], Richard Osborne creates a memorable image as he reveals the comically shambolic circumstances of that conductor’s 1961 recording of an abridged version of Giselle: “The parts arrived from Paris in no sort of order and Karajan promptly set about busking his way delightedly through whatever dog-eared sheaf of papers happened to be at hand” (op. cit. p. 468). That spirit of spontaneous delight is, I think, apparent throughout this very special account, characterised not only by the conductor’s many felicitous touches but also by the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It has remained fondly remembered for nearly six decades (and not only because its composer’s surname ensured that it almost always appeared on the opening page of the alphabetically-arranged Penguin Guides) and has often been cited, if only in passing, in MusicWeb reviews (review ~ review ~ review). It is, I think, one of the undoubted highlights of this collection.

The other rather special tracks on this release encompass a set of excerpts from Delibes’s Coppélia in which, this time, Karajan directs the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. As I have often remarked in my MusicWeb reviews of ballet recordings, my general preference is for conductors whose approach has been informed by previous practical experience working with real-life dancers. A quick skim through Richard Osborne’s exhaustive biography suggests, if only by omission, that Karajan had little if any such expertise. What he does seem to have possessed, on the other hand, is an innate skill in handling music written for dancing. Referring to the conductor’s best-selling 1952 recording of Tchaikovsky ballet suites, Osborne cites his ability to “combine playing of rare finish and beauty with an edge-of-the-seat spontaneity” (op. cit., p. 340), a talent that was also clearly exhibited nine years later in these wonderfully idiomatic Coppélia highlights.

The Karajan/Berlin PO recording of Les sylphides – a sequence of Chopin pieces orchestrated by Roy Douglas (who, incidentally, died as recently as 2015 at the ripe old age of 107) – is very fine but not, I think, at quite the same exalted level as the Coppélia or Giselle excerpts. It is, moreover, compromised by the omission of as many as three of the eight numbers – the nocturne in A flat major op. 32 no. 2, the mazurka in D major op. 33 no. 2 and the prelude in A major op. 28 no. 7. I do not have access to the original DGG material, so remain unaware whether those three were ever recorded at all or whether they have simply been discarded on this occasion for lack of remaining space on the CD. My benchmark performance of Les Sylphides is one recorded at about the same time as Karajan’s but which, as far as I know, has never appeared on disc. It comes, surprisingly, from the soundtrack of Anthony Asquith’s 1963 feature film An evening with the Royal Ballet (Kultur DVD D1182). Supporting real dancers (including Fonteyn and Nureyev) on stage clearly inspires John Lanchbery and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to produce an attractively airy and buoyantly rhythmic performance, while most effectively juxtaposing moments of poignancy and joie de vivre. While Les sylphides can sometimes, on CD, sound genteel to the point of dullness, Lanchbery’s performance from the Covent Garden pit is always involving and frequently – as in the op. 33 mazurka (missing, as already noted, from Karajan’s recording) and the concluding Grande valse brillante in E flat major op. 18 - genuinely exciting. Even Karajan cannot compete with it, I’m afraid.

By the way, if you enjoy the music of Les Sylphides, it’s worth checking out Sir Malcolm Sargent’s own arrangement, a more glamorously over-the-top creation than Roy Douglas’s comparatively restrained version. Available in a fine recording, yet again dating from the early 1960s, on Guild Historical GHCD2421, it was one of my nominated Recordings of the Year in 2015 (review).

The sound quality of the tracks on this disc is generally very fine which is hardly surprising as Decca, in particular, was renowned for its engineering standards in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, as you might have already anticipated, the CD fails to credit the sound engineers responsible. I ought, however, to point out a welcome, if unique, exception to this release’s generally substandard presentation. James Murray’s booklet notes are both informative and well-written – and they even appear to have been proof-read.

Rob Maynard

 

 



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