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French Ballet Music
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1957-1959
Presto CD
WARNER CLASSICS 6790012 [70]

Compiling a list of mid-20th century orchestral conductors you’d risk inviting to a dinner party isn’t an easy task. Plenty of them would simply have no chance at all. Wilhelm Furtwängler would be excluded as way too cerebral to be relied upon for genial chit-chat. So too would his antithesis Arturo Toscanini, on the grounds that, on a bad day, he’d be throwing a tantrum and screaming at the other guests even before the prawn cocktail had reached the table. In the interests of maintaining a genial atmosphere, neither the preening, self-obsessed Herbert von Karajan nor those semi-professional misanthropes Fritz Reiner and George Szell would be there. You’ll find, in fact, that it’s pretty difficult to come up with a table-full of guests guaranteed to behave themselves and contribute to a successful evening. Just a few possible candidates survive the most cursory scrutiny. Benign, affable Pierre Monteux, beloved by all, will certainly be there. Leopold Stokowski also merits a seat - albeit, at his own request, a specially spot-lit one - from which to regale you indiscreetly with his favourite Hollywood and High Society anecdotes. There’s no doubt, however, that, at the top of the table, with a bottle of Dom Perignon in one hand and a fat Romeo y Julieta cigar in the other, bon vivant Sir Thomas Beecham will be holding court.

The bonhomie that characterised Beecham’s attitude to life was reflected in much of the repertoire that he chose to conduct and that his many admirers particularly appreciated. He particularly enjoyed lavishing care and attention on shorter encore pieces that became famous as his “lollipops”. No less than three of his most famous EMI LPs were entitled Lollipops (“Favourite pieces of Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart., C.H.”), More Beecham lollipops and Beecham conducts French lollipops and the tracks on those discs more often than not justify the observation that he possessed “the rare ability of taking a minor piece of music and making it sound like a masterpiece” (John L. Holmes Conductors on record [London, 1982], p. 53). However, it must be conceded that much of the lollipops’ success was due to the conductor’s happy knack of identifying brief, tuneful excerpts from unfamiliar repertoire that he thought could benefit from his characteristically careful embellishment; thus we note Mr Holmes’s careful choice of words – that Beecham made it sound like a masterpiece, rather than that he actually revealed a genuine masterpiece. It is, moreover, a fair observation that he was not always able to achieve the same feats of alchemy when leading performances of more standard – and more substantial - works, especially, perhaps, of the Austro-German repertoire, so that non-UK critics and commentators have sometimes been perplexed by the high esteem still accorded him in the British Isles.

The CD under review seems to be something of a hardy perennial. My colleague Arthur Barker sang its praises effusively when it was included in the EMI series “Great Recordings of the Century” in 2002, while Stephen Francis Vasta may have raised a few problematic issues when it was re-released in 2010 but was still generally positive. The contents are unchanged for this reissue, remarketed under the umbrella title “French ballet music”. That, of course, is not a strictly accurate description, for none of the pieces here actually derives from an original ballet as such. Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, for instance, was composed as a symphonic poem for concert performance and it was almost 20 years before Nijinsky thought to choreograph it for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Similarly, the extracts from Samson et Dalila, Cendrillon and Faust may have been written for dancers but each formed merely incidental episodes that had been shoehorned, as was usual practice at the time, into full length operas. Likewise, the dances from Le roi s’amuse merely formed an extra choreographed interlude in an 1882 revival of Victor Hugo’s stage play that had been written – without any music at all - 50 years earlier. Berlioz’s primary focus in Le damnation de Faust was on its vocal soloists and choruses; once again, the dance episodes are more accurately regarded as somewhat incidental diversions. The same point may be made of the cortège et air de danse from Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue, a cantata for soprano, baritone, tenor and orchestra.

Apart from their very different original sources, the stylistic differences exhibited by these various pieces also reflect their dates of composition. Those range from 1846 (Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust), via 1894’s watershed Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune (regarded by no less an authority as Pierre Boulez as the first piece of “modern” music) to 1899 (Massenet’s Cendrillon). At first sight, then, this might appear to be a somewhat disparate and randomly-selected series of pieces. When listening to them in sequence, however, a real sense of cohesion is generated by the consistent care and elegance that the famously Francophile Beecham lavishes on all the scores. Indeed, the conductor’s affection for these pieces is virtually audible – though, thankfully, as all the recordings were made in a studio, there are none those occasional yells of verbal encouragement to the players that sometimes characterised his live performances.

Beecham’s performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune is probably the most obviously attractive track on the disc. His biographer considers it likely that Beecham had heard the composer himself conducting the piece in London in 1908 (John Lucas Thomas Beecham: an obsession with music [Woodbridge, 2008], footnote p. 39). That performance took place, however, at a time when the Prélude was still thought of only as a symphonic poem; it would be another four years before Nijinsky choreographed the piece and associated it indelibly with a heightened degree of theatrical eroticism – including an episode of simulated ejaculation – that confronted its shocked yet titillated Ballets Russes audiences in 1912. In this 1957 recording, Beecham, who had known Nijinsky and Diaghilev well, signs up wholeheartedly to the heightened sensuality of the balletic approach as, superbly showcased by EMI’s finely transparent recording, he lovingly teases out the maximum degree of seductive lasciviousness from the score.

That same degree of care, coupled, it has to be said, with that aforementioned element of novelty-value, certainly makes rather more of the less familiar pieces than might have been anticipated. Delibes’s music for Le roi s’amuse - the roi in question being the French monarch François I - introduces a bit of courtly dancing to the Hugo play (the bare bones of which are much more familiar today from Verdi’s Rigoletto, albeit that the latter’s action was re-located to the ducal court of Mantua). Beecham’s account is neatly crafted, even if his ability to apply his individual stamp is somewhat circumscribed by the formalised style of the pastiche 16th century score. The unfamiliar music from Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue takes up only just over four minutes and is a pleasant enough diversion, though even Beecham’s lollipopisation can’t really disguise its essentially meretricious character. With more obviously attractive material, however, he can deliver more compelling accounts and the colourful, punchy Samson et Dalila extracts are a case in point. The Berlioz excerpts are equally enjoyable, with the longer and more musically varied of them, the menuet des follets, making a particularly positive impression.

Whereas the performances mentioned so far were all recorded in stereo, the final eight tracks, encompassing the valse from Massenet’s Cendrillon and the substantial dance episode from Gounod’s opera Faust, are, it seems, in mono. I write “it seems” because although both those pieces are marked with an asterisk on the CD’s rear cover, there’s no footnote to explain what the asterisk actually signifies. Meanwhile, the booklet listing only increases the confusion, in that it not only omits an explanatory footnote but, this time, even the asterisks themselves. In fact, I only know that the asterisks’ reference is to the Massenet and Gounod being mono recordings because Arthur Barker mentioned that fact in his aforementioned MusicWeb review – though, as it turns out, this is one of those occasions when the recording technology turns out to make very little difference to the overall listening experience.

It would seem reasonable to anticipate that Beecham would deliver a convincing account of the sequence of seven dances composed by Gounod for the Walpurgisnacht scene in Act 5 of Faust, not only because of his affinity for French music in general but because that particular opera was, after all, something of a Beecham speciality in the theatre. He was frequently lauded for the various staged performances that he led during his career; for instance, the composer Vergil Thompson considered that a 1942 account at New York’s Metropolitan Opera was the “best single conducting job” he had heard there all that season (Lucas op. cit., p. 280). Nevertheless, something intangible is missing from Beecham’s account of the Walpurgisnacht excerpts on this disc and, in contrast to his dance-inspired approach to Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, his performance of the Gounod remains strangely flat-footed. Listening to another recording from the same decade that gets it absolutely spot-on is enough to confirm the point, for when Anatole Fistoulari and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra performed the Walpurgisnacht dances in 1950 (Guild GHCD3502), they delivered an idiomatic performance that is both more balletic and, given the French orchestra’s characteristically distinctive woodwinds and brass, even more French than that of Beecham and his English players.

My colleague Christopher Howell expanded on that point a few years ago when, in a fascinating series of essays focussing on Forgotten Artists, he offered a tour d’horizon of Fistoulari’s career that included a perceptive comparison with Beecham in the Walpurgisnacht dances: “The last section shows why Fistoulari was such a successful ballet conductor, both with the dancers themselves and with the public. He holds a strict tempo, which with some ballet conductors means a less-than-enthralling interpretation musically. But Fistoulari has it both ways. There is rhythmic verve at the opening, with a sense that he is pushing tempo and dynamics as far as they can go without embracing hysteria. And then the soaring string theme wells out passionately without any slackening of the pace, yet with expressivity to set your blood boiling. In general, Fistoulari’s conducting of this music is not graceful and elegant, à la Beecham, but colourful and ardent. If anyone thinks Gounod is hardly the composer to engage the emotions, especially when writing dance music, Fistoulari would seem not to agree.” I can only express my complete agreement with the points that Christopher so eloquently makes – and, in passing, suggest that it’s about time that some enterprising company (Decca Eloquence? Scribendum?) released a Fistoulari box or two.

Meanwhile, however - and notwithstanding Fistoulari in the Gounod - Beecham’s many admirers will no doubt want this new Presto re-pressing of French ballet music in their collections. Other purchasers will be happy to acquire a generally diverting and well-delivered 70 minutes-worth of tuneful scores offering a welcome diversion to the frequently depressing state of today’s world. As such – as well as in its own right – the renewed availability of this disc is to be welcomed.

Rob Maynard

Delibes – ballet music from Le roi s’amuse, rec. 12 and 16 May 1958
Debussy - Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, rec. 25 March 1957
Debussy - cortège et air de danse from L’enfant prodigue, rec. 5 October and 23 November 1959
Saint-Saëns - danse des prêtresses de Dagon from Samson et Dalila, rec. 20 October 1958
Saint-Saëns – bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, rec. 23 November 1959
Berlioz – danse des sylphes from Le damnation de Faust, rec. 25 March 1957
Berlioz – menuet des follets from Le damnation de Faust, rec. 25 March 1957
Massenet – valse from Cendrillon, rec. 9 October 1957
Gounod – Act 5 ballet music from Faust, rec. 9 October and 3 November 1957

1957-1958, Salle Wagram, Paris; 1957-1959, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London; 1958, Kingsway Hall, London. Stereo (Delibes, Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Berlioz) and mono (Massenet and Gounod)

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