Three things to say straightaway. Firstly, the playing on this disc by the late Anthony Goldstone (1944-2017) is stunning from the first note to the last. Secondly, do not try to hear this disc at a single sitting. Enjoy each ballet (or excerpt) at a time, and then come back a wee bit later for the next round. And, finally, despite point ‘1’ above, I would rather listen to the original orchestra version in every case. It is not the forum too argue for/against transcriptions, but there is a tendency for the music to appear less like a recital than a répétiteur in the ballet school. (I think someone else made this remark re. an earlier disc in this series.) On the other hand, a transcription can allow the listener to better appreciate the structure of a work: harmonic, formal and melodic. It is all a matter of opinion. But let me reiterate that this is a superb disc.
I do not wish to give details of each ballet’s plots, business and action. Nor will I present a detailed description of the progress of the music. However, a few words on each piece may be of interest, as some are not quite as familiar as others.
Poulenc’s Les Biches was first performed in Monte Carlo during January 1924 and explores the relationship between a group of ‘bright young things’ living in the South of France. The original featured choral settings of 17th century texts. Poulenc arranged the score for orchestra in 1939-40. The word ‘Biche’ is usually translated as does (adult female deer). It was also a slang French word for a ‘coquettish woman.’ (Wikipedia). The music is subtle, sparkling and largely neoclassical. There are many sly references to older composers: Mozart, Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky and even Stravinsky. Three movements are given here: Rondeau, Andantino and Final.
Henri Sauguet’s contribution to this selection of French ballet music is the ‘charming’ score to Les Forains (The Fairground Entertainers or The Fairground People). This was a one-act ballet written in 1945 and first presented at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in March 1945. The war was still raging, though Paris had been liberated on 25 August 1944. The music has nothing complex or modernistic about it. In fact, it has been said that the score is ‘sometimes verging on the trivial but never falling into vulgarity.’ I found it all a little dull.
Jean Françaix is a composer who is sadly forgotten these days. Writer of much good, ‘neo-classical’ music for a wide range of genres whose influences included Ravel, Stravinsky, Chabrier and Poulenc. The present Serenade for orchestra was composed in 1934, when the composer was twenty-two years old. It is a delightful work and seems to have transcribed well for piano solo. I have never heard the original version. There are four short movements. The Serenade was used in the ballet A la Françaix which was devised by George Ballachine, and was premiered in New York in 1951.
My musical discovery on this CD is the L’Oeuf à la coque (The Boiled Egg) (1949) by Maurice Thiriet (1906-72). I had previously heard of neither composer nor his music. Listening to this ballet score, there is much in common with Jean Françaix and Francis Poulenc in their exploitation of neo-classicism. To these allusions Thiriet adds jazz and popular song. Never mind the ‘book’ of the ballet: just enjoy this is a sparkling and often catchy score. Any of the four extracts presented here by Anthony Goldstone would make an ideal piano recital encore.
St Petersburg-born composer Boris Asafiev (1884-1949) provided the score for the ballet The Flames of Paris. This is a work based on the French Revolution. Asafiev made use of songs from that era. Anthony Goldstone has presented a short suite of extracts from the original four act ballet. Not a particularly inspiring piece, although the ‘Introduction’ has a memorable tune.
Printemps, by Debussy has seen several incarnations. Originally for choir, piano and orchestra, it was written whilst the composer was living in Rome. The score was destroyed by fire. Debussy rewrote the work for orchestra and piano but without the chorus (with the help of Henri Busser) and created a four-handed piano version. The work was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (Allegory of Spring): it is often deemed to represent one of the earliest examples of musical impressionism. It was adapted by the composer for piano duet and was further arranged for piano solo by Henri Busser in 1904. This is the version that is played on this disc, with many extra ‘twiddly bits’ by Anthony Goldstone. Printemps was used as a ballet score for the Alhambra Theatre in London. It was a part of a revue called Not Likely! The liner notes point out that this important early essay in impressionism was heard alongside performances by Minnie Kaufmann, the trick cyclist and ‘Chinko, the Chinese juggler. Apparently, Debussy had been commissioned to write a new piece for this venue, but failed to make headway. He offered Printemps instead, so as not to lose his fee.
Finally, Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella makes use of the music of the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The ballet tells of the adventures of Pulcinella, who is a stock character of Neapolitan theatre. In 1922 the composer presented an eight-movement orchestral suite of the ballet. It is well-known music that transcribes well for the piano.
The liner notes by Jeremy Nicholas are excellent and give detailed information about these works which is often not easily available elsewhere. The sound quality of this Divine Art disc is first-rate.
As noted above, despite my reservations about ‘transcriptions’ this is an outstanding disc that introduces the listener to a wide conspectus of French ballet music, either specifically composed for the genre, or skillfully adapted by the choreographer. I reiterate: every note is played with style, technical ability and downright enthusiasm.