Other than giving detailed synopses of the three ballets featured here, the uncredited liner notes, presumably reproduced from the original two LPs (Antheil and Banfield came together, Schuman was paired with Copland's Billy the Kid, now on Copland: Billy the Kid (Complete Ballet), etc.), are totally un-informative about the composers, compositions and performances. The Dance Company called, in the 1940s and early 1950s , the "Ballet Theatre" started off in 1937 as the "Mordkin Ballet" and was renamed in 1956 the "American Ballet Theatre" - which is familiar territory to people even remotely interested in ballet, since its artistic director from 1980 to 1989 was Mihail Baryshnikov. From 1950 to 1958 the Ballet Theatre orchestra was conducted by Joseph Levine (1911-1994), a former student of Joseph Hofmann (piano) and of Fritz Reiner and Arthur Rodzinsky (conducting) at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. In the 1950s he made a number of recordings of ballet music with the Ballet Theatre Orchestra for Capitol, some of which have been reissued in this EMI Fds series (the one mentioned above, and I've also reviewed Offenbach/Dorati: Suites from Bluebeard and Helen of Troy; Meyerbeer: Les Patineurs). These three were recorded in 1953 and 1954, in mono sound lacking spaciousness.
George Antheil and William Schuman of course need no introduction, but their respective ballet might. Antheil's Capital of the World is a late composition (1953) of the erstwhile bad boy turned conservative upon his return to America in the early 1930s. It is also a colorful score written for a ballet after Hemingway's short story with the same title, taking place in the bullfighters' world in Madrid - but it's not very original: in it I hear lots of Falla, some Broadway, whiffs of Prokofiev (and the Prokofiev of the lesser ballets at that) and echoes of Stravinsky's Petrushka. There are sections that Levine conducts with perceptibly more drive and elan than Barry Kolman, Antheil: Capital of the World/Symphony 5/Archipelago (especially in the more sentimental passages) - but not systematically, and in some passages he is even markedly more pedestrian and genial. One nice touch of Levine is that he has a small passage played by solo viola (track 3 at 3:23) rather than the full section like Kolman (3:39). But where Kolman clearly has the lead is that, ah, he comes in such incomparably better sound - and it does make a difference in a piece like this, where the orchestral color is the message and the substance - as to make any interpretive superiority of Levine fruitless (and really the merits are shared). Plus, Levine makes some cuts, some of them substantial and unfortunate. Comically, the liner notes boast "a unique feature of this recording... conceived by the composer as an integral part of the music": the flamenco foot-stamping of Roy Fitzell, principal male dancer of the Ballet Theatre: it comes at 7:57 on track 2. Kolman lets you hear the orchestra.
Schuman's Undertow was written in 1945, for the English choreographer Antony Tudor who was also one of the masterminds in the reorganization of the Morkin Ballet into the Ballet Theatre in 1940, and the company's resident choreographer for ten years. Undertow then comes from Schuman's early maturity, after Symphonies 3, 4 and 5 for strings. Seen from today the story is pretty silly, typical of an era when the American cultural and intellectual scene was discovering Freudian psychoanalysis with the over-enthusiasm of beginners. It features a main character called "the Transgressor", who because he was rejected by his mom in early childhood eventually murders a young seductress ("Medusa"). At times Schuman's debt to Copland's Cowboy style can be heard (tracks 6, 8 9) but at its best his score presents a syncopated dynamism, muscularity and sweep that are uniquely Schuman's (1, 7, 11-14). There was a competing studio recording in the LP era, made in 1950 by the composer himself conducting the Louisville Orchestra, on Mercury MG 10088, and ideally paired with Schuman's 1949 ballet Judith under Robert Whitney, but they are available only as mp3 downloads from Naxos (the Louisville-Whitney Judith available on CD, W. Schuman: Judith / Symphony 4 / Prayer in Time of War is a later remake from 1959, still in mono). Testament has released a broadcast recording of Guido Cantelli (The NBC Broadcast Concerts, December 1950). But really the ballet needs a modern, stereo recording.
Raffaelo de Banfield (1922-2008) was a Baron of something, son of an Austro-Hungarian nobleman and flying-ace and of an Italian countessa, and a jet-setter himself who liked to socialize with the high-society stars of Classical music and the arts like Karajan, Poulenc, Casals, Maria Callas, Picasso. Not that any of this counts. As a composer, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger from 1946 to 1949 and "The Combat" was the piece that signalled his breakthrough in 1949. I hadn't enjoyed the one work of Raffaelo de Banfield that I have heard before - the opera "Lord Byron's Love Letter" (1955) after Tennessee Williams: he sounds to me like a sub-Menotti, a post-Puccini composer strayed into the second half of the 20th Century. But his Ballet "The Combat" is a little better than that. Yes the style remains post-Puccini, verging on Barber and at times definitely lapsing into maudling sentimentality (tracks 19 & 24), but in its best moments it does have genuine dramatic impact and there are touches that could come from Debussy's La Mer (strikingly track 17 at 1:30) or the ballets of Roussel. Track 18 with timpani has something of a romping and demented Rhumba. The story (and the combat) is that of Tancred and Clorinda from Tasso's Jerusalem Liberated, to which Monteverdi gave its timeless fame.
TT 71:38. I'll keep this CD only for Schuman's Undertow - and that is, only until a new, stereo recording shows up.