Constant Lambert Conducts Ballet Music

0 of 5 stars

The Sleeping Princess [The Sleeping Beauty, Op.66] – Suite
Meyerbeer, arranged Lambert
Les Patineurs
Boyce, arranged Lambert
The Prospect Before Us
William Tell – Ballet Music

February 1939, Kingsway Hall, London [Tchaikovsky]
May 1939, Kingsway Hall, London [Meyerbeer & Rossini]
August 1940, Abbey Road Studios, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: January 2009
Duration: 71 minutes



When I was younger (so much younger than today) my grandmother took me to Harrods and bought me the set of three plum-label 78 rpm HMV records that comprises this recording of The Sleeping Princess. I have therefore known it for most of my life. Stephen Lloyd’s tremendously informative booklet note mentions Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn as taking the leading parts in early productions and I am old enough to have seen them dance in later performances of this ballet at Covent Garden. Post-war the company called the ballet The Sleeping Beauty but Somm is correct in keeping the original title as printed on the labels of the 78s. I believe my memory is reliable enough to claim that the tempos in Constant Lambert’s recorded performance are very close indeed to those I heard when watching the ballet. Above all this is a balletic performance and Lambert was a supreme ballet conductor. In his note, Lloyd prints a letter from Lincoln Kirstein (co-founder of the New York City Ballet) which praises Lambert’s skills lavishly and Kirstein is also quoted as saying that Lambert was “… the greatest ballet conductor in the business.”

The recording gives every evidence of this – Lambert displays great sensitivity and brings much subtle musical inflection, but always in tempo. Refurbishing engineer Arthur Ridgewell seems fully aware of this balletic atmosphere and at each side-join brings in the following scene in rhythm with the closing notes of the previous sequence – exactly as a ballet conductor would continue the music uninterrupted between one scene and the next in the theatre.

In the playing there is just a hint of glissando between notes from the violins but there is surprising clarity and detail from this far-from-new recording. I never understood why it was that “The Record Guide”, which was the record collector’s ‘Bible’ in those days, criticised the recording severely claiming that there was “too heavy a bass and very few high frequencies”. I disagree – no doubt the refurbishment has helped but the high frequencies seem as good as in most recordings of the day. There is a clear celesta, there are adequate cymbals and the bass is excellent: it avoids that ‘cardboard box’ sound of the lower frequencies so often heard in the 1930s. On this recording the bass has a natural quality. The microphones manage to capture a good deal of the natural resonance of Kingsway Hall.

I note that the track-listing of the scenes in the reissue is word-for-word as printed in that 1951 ‘Record Guide’ review. There is slight misidentification of what music is allotted to each of the various fairies on what tracks but balletomanes will know which is which and those who don’t know the Covent Garden production won’t be troubled.

The remaining three works are all Lambert arrangements. Les Patineurs was another great Covent Garden favourite and has never lost its appeal. This work was famous for being spectacularly well recorded by Decca on more than one occasion, firstly in the early days of LP and again in the early days of stereo. Lambert was given only the length of a single 78 to record excerpts, but the four that were chosen are delightful and the second of them, the ‘Pas des patineuses’, has some splendid ‘period’ violin slides, yet all are within the context of a strongly rhythmic performance.

The Prospect Before Us was less popular and was dropped from the Covent Garden repertoire in 1952 (Lloyd points out that it was revived in 1998 by Birmingham Royal Ballet). In general I am an enthusiast regarding Lambert’s arrangements but his approach to Boyce is a little worrying. Before the war the only readily available edition of Boyce’s eight symphonies was one that featured Lambert’s arranged version. This vastly altered the orchestration (and even gave an alternative option that used only strings). To my knowledge the first authentic 20th-century edition of these works was published under the editorship of the American musicologist and conductor Max Goberman, but I am told that this was hard to come by. In The Prospect Before Us Lambert re-utilises his own arranged version of the symphonies and adds excerpts from some of the composer’s trio-sonatas in orchestrated form.

I am worried by the jumble of these well-known symphonic movements and am sometimes surprised by the wild rapidity of the speeds but I feel sure that these choices of tempo must have been made to suit the presentation of the ballet. Boyce’s music was the vehicle for stage production and it would be unfair to criticise Lambert for not giving an authentic performance of Baroque music – this was not his aim. I listened to these jolly tunes and concluded that in recorded form they would be suitable as a background to a meal (I do not mean this in a derogatory sense). Certainly this clearly transferred recording of seven tuneful scenes from the ballet is very pleasing to the ear. Track 19 in particular provides a very lively performance of a fair amount of a not-much-altered version of Symphony No.5 – the most exciting of those eight superb works.

Lambert’s conducting of the “William Tell” ballet music is a particular delight. Listeners will already have encountered many of these pieces. The best-known reincarnation of some of them came as part of Respighi’s brilliant arrangement and orchestration for La Boutique fantasque. Alternatively, listeners may have heard them in Britten’s arrangement where some of these items were taken from late Rossini songs. Lambert’s recreation is closely geared to the ballet stage and the rhythms are eminently danceable – a refreshing alternative to the Britten’s approach which came out as a vain attempt at humour and ended up by being not much more than a crude parody of Rossini’s charming tunes.

From Lambert the continuous flow of these splendid melodies makes for ideal ‘easy listening’. Again this reissue permits each episode to flow into the next and it is fascinating to hear how a talented conductor of ballet can attain the music’s quick changes of mood without any change of tempo. One of the pieces is the ‘Passo a sei’. Toscanini’s recording of this is a great favourite of mine but that conductor (uncharacteristically) chose to manipulate the tempos with a freedom usually employed when conducting a Viennese waltz. The effect was marvellous but then so is Lambert’s far more classical approach.

I have listened to this disc several times with great pleasure. I concede that in the case of the Tchaikovsky nostalgia of a personal nature has added to my enjoyment but I am still prepared to insist that the overall sound of this and its companion pieces is remarkable for its period. I can truthfully describe the contents of this release as a prime example of being 70 years young!

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