DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. La Mer. La Boite à joujoux. Three Preludes (orch. Colin Matthews)
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.

EMI CLASSICS 58045 (F) (DDD) TT: 78:46
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STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring. The Nightingale (Opera in One Act).
London Symphony Orch/Robert Craft (Rite); Olga Trifonova (The Nightingale); Robert Tear (The Fisherman); Pippa Longworth (The Cook); Paul Whelan (The Emperor of China); Stephen Richardson (The Chamberlain); Andrew Greenan (The Bonze); Sally Burgess (Death); Peter Hall (Japanese Envoys 1 & 3); Simon Preece (Japanese Envoy 2); London Voices (Courtiers); Philharmonia Orch/Robert Craft, cond
NAXOS 8.557501 (B) (DDD) TT: 76:28
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BLISS: Melée Fantasque. Checkmate: Ballet in One Scene with a Prologue.
Royal Scottish National Orch/David Lloyd-Jones, cond.
NAXOS 8.557641 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:03
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All three CDs contain ballet music, although EMI’s latest from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, all-Debussy, features La mer (which occupies only a third of the disc). It begins with a suitably soft-grained if perhaps too voluptuous Afternoon of a Faun, one of Nijinsky’s great roles. Following the three seascapes Rattle segues to André Caplet’s orchestration of The Box of Toys, which Debussy completed in piano score between February and October of 1913 – a period during which Stravinsky’s notorious Le Sacre du Printemps had its legendary Paris premiere. However, Debussy only completed scoring the first tableau (“Le Magasin de jouets”) before WW1 caused him to question when and how it could be produced. He put it aside and by war’s end in 1918 was dead. His friend Caplet completed it (also the Children’s Corner Suite), and the work was finally danced December 10, 1919. In this and in the Faun, the disc’s supreme star is flutist Emmanuel Pahud – perhaps the premier French-school flutist since Marcel Moyse. In La Boite, pianist Majella Stockhausen-Riegelbauer is also featured. As an overall performance, the latter is the highlight – all of Rattle’s fastidiousness and finesse, often carried to extremes elsewhere, fit like a glove. But these same qualities tend to call attention to themselves in La Mer at a cost of continuity and structural coherence – for example, the prestissimo speed-up at the end where the composer wanted just presto, which only shows how fast the orchestra can play and still sound gorgeous. The first movement is slo-o-o-w – 9:14, although Reiner’s with the Chicago Symphony was even slower by a minute without losing shape or coherent sensuousness as Rattle’s performance does. Sir Simon fills out his disc with three gaudily irrelevant orchestrations by one Colin Matthews of piano Préludes – as if these were Granados’ Iberia and he, Matthews, were Enrique Arbós. They aren’t and he isn’t. EMI’s sound is Neue Philharmonie live with a tad too much nonspecific bass, otherwise latter-day par for the course.

The Rite of Spring, which Robert Craft recorded resoundingly 10 years ago with the London Symphony in Studio 1 at Abbey Road (and was previously available on Koch International at more than double the price of Naxos’ reissue), sounds fast by standards that have come to be considered “normal.” Yet it is 4 seconds longer than the composer’s own benchmark recording of 1940 with the New York Philharmonic. Craft takes no prisoners, and if the LSO has a blurry moment or two, nothing is damaged, any more than a myriad of playing mistakes disqualified Stravinsky’s NYP version of 65 years ago (available in Vol. 1 of Andante’s three-album issue of early Stravinsky recordings). I am not giving up Ozawa/Chicago on BMG, and certainly not Chailly/Amsterdam on a DVD of immense impact, but Craft stays along with his “foster-father,” I.S. The Nighingale, recorded two years after Le Sacre in the same London venue, but this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is a schizoid work – begun before The Firebird in a style strongly influenced by French impressionism, but put aside until a month after the premiere of Le Sacre in 1913 and finished the following March. The source is Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, from which Stravinsky and Stepan Stepanovich Mitusin fashioned the libretto. It hath charms aplenty, although the best can be heard in the tone poem I.S. subsequently made – with one oustanding exception, the Nightingale herself of Olga Trifonova, whose coloratura register is breathtaking in this music. Her Brit colleagues, including Robert Tear as the Fisherman and Paul Whelan as the Emperor of China, sing credibly in Russian (the program includes a complete phonetic text as well as an English translation), but The Nightingale might have paired more companionably with Mavra or Renard, and Le Sacre with Les Noces of 1923. Commendable, none the less, and a helluva bargain.

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) lived a long and famous life, including Master of the Queen’s Musick after Bax, although he came to orchestral concert music comparatively late in life with Mélee fantasque in 1921 – a 12-minute work he considered his “first ballet score.” He followed it with A Colour Symphony, but also with three ballets in particular for Ninette de Valois and what became the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. Checkmate was the first in 1937; then, working with Robert Helpmann, he created Miracle in Gorbals in 1944 and Adam Zero in 1946 (the latter recorded on Naxos). If I haven’t the great affection of S.G.S. on this site for Bliss’ music, it is indubitably professional in a tonal context that owes French music as much respect as his own countrymen. If he lacked anything, it was a sharply distinctive musical profile – the kind that proclaims, “Ah, Bliss!” whether one knows the music beforehand or hears it blindfolded. Naxos has already given us Adam Zero (coupled with A Colour Symphony), conducted by David Lloyd-Jones, as these two new entries are. Whereas they were recorded with the English Northern Philharmonia (founded as part of Opera North in 1978), Checkmate and Mélee were made last year in Glasgow with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, produced by Tim Handley and engineered by Phil Rowlands. The featured ballet here, “in One Scene with a Prologue,” is a large piece – 53 minutes – diversified in subject matter ranging from The Red Knight’s buoyant Mazurka to the sinuous evil of The Black Queen, who finally – Checkmate – kills the Red King. It is, in terms of libretto, a far more sophisticated confection than Stravinsky’s Card Game (Jeu de cartes) but Stravinsky’s music has a personality as well as a cutting edge that Bliss does not match, agreeable and even vivacious as his work can be (it remains a repertory work today). However, it needn’t be a masterpiece to give pleasure, and I suspect will to many listeners who want tunes and tonic chords as well as sophistication. Lloyd-Jones continues to be Bliss’ foremost living exponent on discs, and the orchestra as well as Naxos’ technical team do their best to reward him.

R.D. (September 2005)