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An unqualified delight
on 3 March 2014
It is wonderful at last to hear in one collection all the music Meyerbeer wrote for the ballet sequences in his famous operas. His contribution to the history of the ballet was just as significant as his innovations in opera, and the famous Ballet of the Nuns in `Robert le Diable' marks the very inception of the Romantic Ballet--the `ballet blanc' where the spirits of many kinds of legendary and sometimes malevolent beings dance in the moonlight to the harm or healing of the hapless hero (from `La Sylphide' in 1832 to `La Bayadère' and `Swan Lake' in 1877). The sheer colour and variety of the pieces gives a vivid impression of the way in which Meyerbeer has responded to the very different exigencies of the plots.
The two ballets in `Robert le Diable' are a good case in point. The `Pas de cinq' in act 2 is pure divertissement, a group of charming and ingratiating dances, woven into a musically integrated suite. It is so very different from the great Temptation Scene of Act 3 which carries the dramatic burden of the plot. Here, in a striking sequence of six episodes, the spirits of fallen nuns try to induce the wavering hero into fatal error, entirely through the medium of dance. The composer has written a highly original score, with music uniquely imagined for the supernatural scenario: it is eerie and beautiful at the same time, and tries to reveal the ambiguous nature of the episode in the tonal qualities of the music. Romantic fairy music (attractive melodies and delicate orchestration, like Weber, Mendelssohn and Nicolai) is juxtaposed with darker motifs and sounds that are awkward creepy, grotesque, and even discordant (like Berlioz and Mussorgsky). Nothing has surpassed the Gothic imagination of the music that accompanies the emergence of the spirits from their graves (the `Procession des nonnes' with its mysterious harmonies and spine-tingling solo bassoons). On the other hand, the supreme moment of `temptation by love' is realized in a beautiful cello solo, first alone and then in duet with the flute, the archetype of all balletic adagio's. Once the temptation is realized, the spell is broken: the beautiful temptresses are revealed for the maleficent phantoms they really are, and swept off to their infernal home on a torrent of orchestral sound. (The scene is captured forever in the two famous paintings Degas made of this legendary episode, in 1871 and 1876. The cover gives the first, now in New York.)
The Gypsy Dance from `Les Huguenots' is full of sprightly elegance, and beautifully crafted in a rondo format. The pieces from `L'Etoile du Nord' and `Le Prophete' will be recognized by all balletomanes as the score arranged by Constant Lambert for the famous Frederick Ashton ballet `Les Patineurs'. Here the music is presented and played in its original conception. The four dances from the famous skating episode in `Le Prophete' are demanding virtuoso pieces, and must surely be some of the most delightful ballet music ever written. The variety of melody, rhythm and splendid orchestration are irresistible.
The `Marche Indienne' from `L'Africaine' is another of Meyerbeer's most innovatory pieces, and was very influential in establishing the vogue for Eastern exoticism in later nineteenth-century music. The contrasting episodes are marked by imaginative motifs and melodies, and a wide, exotic palette of tonal colours--four bassoons and bass clarinets, beautiful legato brass choirs (trumpets, cornets, horns, trombones), harps and bells. It is an engrossing and delightful orchestral tour de force.
The Spanish orchestra plays the music with passion, responding to the brilliant orchestral sheens and variety of rhythms. The Polish conductor inclines to faster tempi, and this sometimes means that cantabile passages are not always given their full potential (like the famous cello solo in `Robert le Diable' and the lovely cantabile passages for the horns in both ballets from this opera). He nonetheless directs this sparkling music with a natural flair, and can sometimes just be discerned singing along in some infectious passages. This is a long delayed addition to the recorded repertory: it is an achievement of considerable significance, and makes another contribution towards a proper evaluation of Meyerbeer's important place in musical history.