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Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
La Source, ballet suite (1866)
Coppélia, ballet suite (1870)
Sylvia, ballet suite (1876)
Sharon Roffman (violin solos), Josef Pacewicz (clarinet solo), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 4-5 November 2019, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland

This is a compilation of suites from Delibes’s three famous ballets, of which there are many recordings exist – both the suites and full ballets. In the music, we find, there is a recognisable development in the composer’s style over the decade from La Source to Sylvia. His later scoring is more secure and more adventurous in use of orchestral colour. The suites contain all the expected lollipops from the ballets — the Pizzicato and March de Bacchaus from Sylvia; the Danse Circassienne and Mazurka from La Source; the Valse, the Mazurka, and Czardas from Coppélia.

Neeme Järvi is credited with ‘compiling the Suites’ (see below). One just wonders if he has in any way adjusted the scores, for I notice the odd rallentando that has not been noticed before, and there seem to be a few altered note values. As usual in classical ballet, the melody lines are regularly repeated. Here I sometimes find that in their repeats there is a slight increase in tempo in the playing. This is most noticeable in La Source’s Danse Circassienne. To me, this gives the feeling of being rushed when the music is so well known.

La Source, Delibes’s earliest work, less performed today, is not as well known as his later two ballets; nor does it have the extent of sparkle evident in the later works. There are three separate suites to La Source. Here we find a combination of all three, although the order has been changed, and not all the movements were used. They all come from Act II. The libretto was written by Charles Nuitter and choreographer of the Paris Opera, Arthur Saint-Léon. In 1866, Delibes was second chorus master at the Paris Opera. The work was to have been composed by Minkus, but due to other commitments he handed over to Delibes the scoring after Act I. It is Delibes’s melodies that are remembered, and Minkus’s tended to fall into obscurity.

In Coppélia, Delibes has secondary melodic phrases that are not usually prominent, yet enrich the harmony. Järvi brings some of them to the fore to give the music fresh appeal. These are minutiae, but nevertheless give a slightly different feel to the numbers that some listeners will enjoy. Where in Coppélia the mischievous villagers dance in Dr Faustus’s house, their opening dance is interrupted by the Doctor’s unexpected return. At this point, the score marks his appearance with dark forte chords, but to bring the dance to a ‘hanging’ halt, and then pause before striking the chords is not understood. This is as much an editing point as a musical director’s decision, so it is surprising that the team had not matched to the mental visuals of the staged version.

Sylvia contains some excellent music, and became well known as a ballet despite its poor libretto with a weak storyline. It is interesting to hear that Delibes makes more use of wind instruments than strings in this work. The music in this interpretation has merit. Still, I quite like the meaningful and lyrical flow that Richard Bonynge gives us in his full recording of the ballet (on Decca 448 095-2).

Readers will be delighted to hear that the playing time, unusually long, gives good value for money. The recording in Glasgow Concert Hall’s pleasant ambience is excellent, with crisp strings, and powerful brass and percussion. Perhaps the strings might have been given a more reverberant acoustic to add to their brilliance and good playing. Järvi and the excellent Royal Scottish Orchestra work well together. I notice, sadly, that each of the Coppélia track titles is shown as ‘Cappelia’ in the Gracenote track description, but this minor point can be easily rectified.

A generous 40-page booklet is provided in English, French and German. The copious notes by Simon Simeone discuss the background to each ballet and influence that Delibes had on Tchaikovsky who was about to write Swan Lake, and Saint-Säens in his Carnival of the Animals. Tchaikovsky considered Delibes a rare romantic composer whose ballet scores can carry equal weight when played in either theatre or concert hall setting. Saint-Säens initially had only heard Delibes’s third ballet, Sylvia, yet felt its composition distinctly inspired.

Raymond J Walker

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