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Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Sylvia (1876) – suite compiled by Neeme Järvi [23:48]
La source (1866) - suite compiled by Neeme Järvi [28:38]
Coppélia (1870) - suite compiled by Neeme Järvi [30:28]
Sharon Roffman, violin (Sylvia)
Josef Pacewicz, clarinet (Coppélia)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 4 and 5 November 2019

In recent years I’ve had the opportunity of listening to several new releases of ballets conducted by Neeme Järvi. I certainly enjoyed his account of Richard Strauss’s blockbuster Josephslegende (review) and, with some important reservations, still found a great deal to admire in Chandos’s five-disc set of his collected Tchaikovsky scores (review).

Whereas, however, those earlier release had showcased complete works, this new one is rather different. Instead of recording full scores, Järvi has instead compiled his own suites of music taken from each of Delibes’s three full-length ballets. The end result is a very well filled CD. Measured simply by the stopwatch, we hear a little less than a quarter of the music of Sylvia and not quite a third of Coppélia, while Delibes’s contribution to the score for La source, an underrated piece composed jointly with Ludwig Minkus and a comparative rarity on disc, fares best, with about half of it included in all.

Järvi has certainly constructed his suites well. Not only are the more familiar numbers all here, but they generally appear in the sequence in which they would be heard in complete performances. There are just a couple of exceptions, with the familiar Marche et cortège de Bacchus (# 14) held over so as to end the Sylvia suite with a suitably grandiloquent bang and La source’s # 17 Scène – Arrivée de Nouredda – Valse de Naïla repositioned so that here it follows, rather than precedes, #s 18a, 18c and 18d. Incidentally, that Valse de Naïla was not originally part of La source at all. A year after that ballet’s premiere, Delibes wrote its music as part of Le jardin animée, a short divertissement that he had been invited to add to an 1867 Paris revival of Adolphe Adam’s ballet Le corsaire. Nigel Simeone’s generally very useful booklet notes offer no explanation of why Järvi has chosen to incorporate it into his La source suite. Nevertheless, I am personally not too concerned about the addition. Not only were La source and Le jardin animée composed within only a year of each other - and at a time, moreover, when composers and choreographers frequently chopped and changed numbers between different ballets - but the newly interpolated Valse de Naïla serves up an irresistibly delectable lent melody that will certainly appeal to anyone with a sweet musical tooth. Neither am I too worried about a slight, but initially disconcerting, modification to the score when Järvi segues that same lent episode seamlessly into the following mouvement de valse, whereas in its original Le corsaire context it ends with an unambiguous climax - marked with either dramatic cymbal clashes (as performed at the Mariinsky Ballet) or a tender diminuendo (as at the Bolshoi) – that allows a temporary pause for the leading ballerina to enjoy the theatre audience’s applause.

Regardless of such occasional idiosyncrasies, the music is undeniably very well performed. Orchestral colours are boldly delineated, orchestral dynamics are impressively wide and numbers that are already notably lively and vivacious occasionally become even more so - to the extent that a knowledgeable balletgoer might imagine them causing a few technical problems for, perhaps, the less experienced members of the corps de ballet. Let’s keep in mind, however, that these are suites that have been specially compiled for home listening rather than accounts of the complete scores as they might be heard serving a significantly different purpose in a theatre. While such high-quality performances certainly showcase the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s currently high standards, they may also reflect a degree of personal empathy engendered by Järvi’s 36 years long association with its players, both in the concert hall and the recording studio. Moreover, Chandos’s highly experienced engineer Ralph Couzens’s SACD recording delivers exemplary sound quality even when heard – as it will be by most buyers - on conventional equipment.

While hardcore balletomanes may not find Järvi’s modifications to their taste, I suspect that they will already own recordings of the complete scores and so may not, in any case, be tempted by a disc of abbreviated suites. For the many listeners with more general musical interests, however, this highlights disc offers beautifully delivered performances of Delibes’s delightfully enjoyable music that will no doubt, in consequence, find a ready market both at Christmas and beyond.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Raymond Walker

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