Delibes: Sylvia, Coppelia / Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra

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DELIBES Sylvia: Suite. Coppélia: Suite Martin West, cond; San Francisco Ballet O REFERENCE RECORDINGS 125 (73: 06)

Reference Recordings has always been a company with impeccable audiophile credentials. It is therefore hardly surprising that it has rerecorded a substantial number of Mercury’s most famous sonic showpieces (including Ottorino Respighi’s Church Windows, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, and H. Owen Reed’s La Fiesta Mexicana ). Now, Keith Johnson and the excellent Reference Recordings team are entering the world of ballet with an ambitious recording of extended suites from Léo Delibes’s Sylvia and Coppélia . With recordings led by Antal Doráti, who was arguably the greatest ballet specialist ever, Mercury had a formidable reputation in this area. Doráti’s complete Tchaikovsky ballets are justly legendary in the recording and ballet fields. Unfortunately, only his second version of The Nutcracker is available in stereo. Mercury’s complete Sylvia (conducted by Anatole Fistoulari with the London Symphony Orchestra) and Coppélia (with Doráti conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) are equally good from a sonic and performance standpoint. So, aside from the fact that the Mercurys are complete and these are extended suites, Doráti and Fistoulari establish the performance standard that Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra must meet.

The difference in the performances is immediately apparent from the beginning of Sylvia ’s prelude. Fistoulari is more expansive and West is decidedly smaller in scale. The fact that the imposing Sylvia prelude is almost immediately followed by the popular and exciting “Les Chassereuses” with its flamboyant horn calls is a definite weakness in the structure of the suite, as opposed to the complete ballet. Again, Fistoulari is more explosively exuberant. West does hold his own in the massive final apotheosis, aided by the always-formidable Reference Recordings bass drum. West is uniformly excellent in Coppélia , but Doráti’s rhythmic precision and intensity with very fast tempos produce an electrifying musical experience that is not likely to be matched. In comparison, West (and everyone else) sounds relatively sedate, almost flaccid. On the other hand, no one could probably dance to some of Doráti’s tempos, and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra sounds more polished than the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (especially the coarse brass). That is not the case with the London Symphony Orchestra in Sylvia. West is not as exciting as Doráti and Fistoulari, but there is plenty of beautiful music-making here. Doráti and Fistoulari are more symphonic as they push tempos to the extreme, and West is more suitable for the dance. That makes it your call in an audio CD with no dancers. I prefer the Mercurys.

From a purely sonic standpoint, the Reference Recordings and Mercury CDs are both excellent, but qualitatively very different. The Mercurys are much hotter on the high end (some would call them inappropriately bright). Johnson tilts the sonic spectrum to the low midrange and bass. The Reference Recordings bass drum has massive impact, but some (not me) will probably say that it is too prominent in relation to the rest of the orchestra. The Reference strings are silky sweet, and I have never heard a triangle reproduced with such clarity and focus. The famous saxophone solo in the “Barcarole” must be heard to be believed. The instrumental texture is amazing as the soloist is shamelessly spotlighted in contrast to the Mercury player, who clearly blends with the rest of the orchestra. Both recordings have plenty of fine inner detail. This CD was recorded at Skywalker Sound.

Ultimately, your choice may come down to whether you prefer the suites or the complete ballets. These suites are very good, but they do omit a lot of excellent music. The complete ballets as conducted by Doráti and Fistoulari make it very clear why even Tchaikovsky was intimidated by these scores. Still, you are not likely to hear a better-recorded performance of these extended suites. The best solution for lovers of this music will probably be to get this recording and the Mercury complete ballets.

FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: RR-125

  • UPC: 030911112523

  • Label: Reference Recordings

  • Composer: Léo Delibes

  • Conductor: Martin West