Tribute to Madam
* Sir Arthur Bliss: Checkmate
* Constant Lambert: The Prospect Before Us
* Gavin Gordon: The Rake's Progress
* Geoffrey Toye: The Haunted Ballroom
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
AS&V CDWLS225 151:34 2CDs
Summary for the Busy Executive: Looks better in the jewel case than it
sounds on a player.
Unlike Russia and France, England took a while to establish a viable
ballet company. Things began to look up when dancer and choreographer
Ninette de Valois (born a very Irish Edris Stannus and known as "Madam")
and her house composer and conductor, Constant Lambert, began the group
that eventually became the Royal Ballet. Diaghilev's Ballet Russe had
made a huge impact in London and his approach - directing a seamless
collaboration among top-flight composers, designers, and dancers -
influenced Madam enormously. We also ought to mention Marie Rambert,
less successful commercially, but far more adventurous musically, mainly
because unlike Valois, she didn't mind going beyond England in search
of composers. She essentially discovered Frederick Ashton, who in the
mid-Thirties moved to Valois's company. Valois's most successful musical
commission by far was Ralph Vaughan Williams's Job, with Bliss's Checkmate
not far behind. Lambert contributed uniformly excellent work but confined
himself mostly to arrangements of music by others. Much of the rest of
Valois's commissions fall under the category of very well-made light
music, which may indeed have contributed to her box-office successes.
In that sense, this CD fairly represents her.
Most of the works on this CD don't measure up musically to the Tchaikovsky
or Stravinsky ballets by any means. Lambert's Prospect Before Us arranges
and reassembles with exquisite taste music by the 18th-century Master
of the King's Music William Boyce. Lambert had prepared a scholarly
edition of Boyce for, I believe, Oxford University Press, so this was
duck soup to him. Still, it doesn't interest me as much as Lambert's
original ballets. Gavin Gordon's Rake's Progress delights rather than
instructs. It's good enough to make you wish that it were better. It
almost breaks through to something memorable.
Geoffrey Toye, better known as a conductor than as a composer, contributes
The Haunted Ballroom, the waltz from which became a radio hit during its
run as the musical signature of the BBC Light Programme. Toye also
provided the story, about the male heirs of a Scottish clan doomed to
dance themselves to death. If the story sounds familiar to you, you
should also know that in 1919 Toye arranged what has become the standard
overture to Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, replacing the original by
one of Sullivan's assistants (could it have been Cellier?). Like The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's description of earth, Toye's Haunted
Ballroom is "mostly harmless," with very little drama. There's more in
Ruddigore, and that's a spoof.
The big news, however - and, as far as I'm concerned, the raison d' etre
for the disc - is the first commercial recording of the complete Checkmate.
Until now, we've had only the five-movement suite out of a total of a
dozen. Essentially, we've had less than half the music. However, since
this disc appeared, Naxos released a complete Checkmate, coupled with
Bliss's early Melee Fantasque, led by David Lloyd-Jones. If you have
no interest in anything other than the Bliss (and you do pay for two CDs
with the ASV), I'd go with the Naxos. Also the Naxos sound is better
and the performance more exciting.
I don't know what it is with Barry Wordsworth, but in general he has
not impressed me. The performances are all okay, but nothing more.
The Bliss and the Lambert come off best, but you can easily imagine
a more gripping reading. That just about sinks this release.
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