The Bird Actors Overture. Pomona
(Ballet in One Act). Romeo and Juliet (Ballet in two
State Orchestra of Victoria/John Lanchberry, cond.
CHANDOS 9865 (F) (DDD) TT: 55:36
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The Triumph of Neptune Suite. Fugue for Orchestra. Nicholas Nickleby. Trois Morceaux.
These CDs devoted to prominent British composers of the early 20th Century show the definite connection between the two. Constant Lambert was born in 1905 and, after a lifetime of illness and overwork, died in 1951. Lord Berners (Gerald Tyrwhitt until 1918 when he inherited the title of 14th Baron Berners), was born in 1883 into a wealthy family and died one year before Lambert.
During the 1926 ballet season in London, Sergei Diaghilev wished to present a ballet with an English subject. At the suggestion of Sacheverell Sitwell (known to collectors for his collaboration with William Walton on Facade), he chose Lord Berners to write the music. Berners was very much a part of the cosmopolitan ballet scene of the time, a friend of Stravinsky whom he had met in 1911 around the time the latter's three big ballets were premiered. The Triumph of Neptune was the result, given its premiere at the Lyceum Theatre in 1926. Diaghilev's only other British commission was Lambert's Romeo and Juliet.
The Triumph of Neptune is an English pantomime in ten tableaux. The preposterous story line includes the sailor Tom Tug who sees Fairyland through a magic telescope and decides to go there. After being shipwrecked he is saved by Britannia, who dances a hornpipe. Worried about his wife, Tom returns home as a spirit to find her involved with a well-dressed villan. After varied adventures, Tom is deserted by his unfaithful wife, turned into a Prince and marries Neptune's daughter. George Balanchine appeared in Triumph making a vivid impression as Snowball, the Negro stereotype.
The suite from Triumph of Neptune contains about half the score consisting of Harlequinade, Dance of the Fairy Princess, Schottische, Cloudland, Sunday Morning, Polka, Hornpipe, The Frozen Forest and Apotheosis. In the Polka, the drunken Tom Tug can be heard singing "The Last Rose of Summer." Sir Thomas Beecham admired the wit and fantasy of Triumph recording it in 1937 with the London Philharmonic (once available on EMI CDM 63405) and in 1952 for Columbia with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Olympia has licensed Barry Wordsworth's 1986 EMI recording which has been out of print for many years. Other Berners seldom-heard works are included, a Fugue, Trois Morceaus (Chionoiserie, Valse sentimentale, Kasatchok), and Fantaisie espagnole (PrĖlude, Fandango, Pasodoble). Playing time is limited (53:07) for this full-priced CD, but it is good to have these fine, well-recorded performances available once again.
Constant Lambert was part of the social circle that included William Walton, Frederick Ashton, Edith Sitwell and her brother Sacheverell, Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton, Peter Warlock and Lord Berners. He helped found Sadler's Wells Ballet and was known for his interest in contemporary music which he conducted often. When only 19 he became the first English composer commissioned by Diaghilev for a ballet, Romeo and Juliet, premiered in Monte Carlo in 1926. Lambert violently disagreed with the famed impresario on sets and scenery but could do nothing except complain publiclywhich may have been detrimental to his budding career. This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare's tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance. The first tableaux is "In a ballet classroom," in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance. The second tableaux is "At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet" in which the first meeting of the two lovers is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain callthey have eloped by aeroplane.
Pomona was premiered shortly after Romeo and Juliet. It's another short ballet (21:17) about Pomona, goddess of fruits and fruit trees," her courting by the god Vertumnus in the court of nymphs and immortals ending with a final nuptial dance, procession and benediction. There are eight short dances in neoclassic English style, with traces of Boyce and Purcell.
Based on a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, the brief (3:16) overture The Bird Actors was written in 1925, revised two years later. It began life as the finale of another ballet, Adam and Eve which also provided some material for Romeo and Juliet. It is a delightful, light-hearted interludewhich could be said of most of the music from the two balletspleasant, frothy and somewhat inconsequential. The State Orchestra of Victoria sounds like a smallish ensemble, but they play beautifully and have been resonantly recorded.
Lambert is best known for jazz-influenced The Rio Grande written in 1927 to a text by Sacheverell Sitwell. This quarter-hour "impressionistic evocation of a South American carnival" is scored for brass, strings, a large percussion section with an extensive piano part, plus chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist. Rio Grande was a hit right from its premiere, even more so in later when Sir Hamilton Harty played the piano part and recorded it in 1930 with the composer conducting (available on Symposium 1203 along with other early recordings of British music, including Walton's Facade). This historic recording is unusual in that the mezzo part is sung by Alan Whitehead, identified as a "male alto." In 1992 Argo issued a CD containing superb performances of The Rio Grande, Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (with Kathryn Stott as soloist), and Lambert's thirdand best ballet, Horoscope, with Barry Wordsworth conducting (Argo 436 118), the deletion of which was a major loss to collectors. In the meantime, collectors may wish to investigate these two CDs of rather frivolous British music of the early 20th Century.