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CD Review

American Ballets

EMI 66548
Ballet Theatre Orchestra/Joseph Levine
EMI 66548 Mono 71:38
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The glory days of American ballet.

The above summary gives me pause. I'm by no means knowledgeable about or even a fan of ballet. Too few dancers seem to me to have even a decent sense of rhythm, let alone demonstrate musical understanding. The same goes for many choreographers. To me ballet too often comes across as leaping around for no good reason. But there was a time when composers gave ballet their best, perhaps inspired by Stravinsky's glorious example (and his royalties) and by patrons with the wherewithal and the desire to commission. Great choreographers didn't hurt, either. Many American composers actively wanted to write for the likes of Graham, Balanchine, De Mille, Limón, and Robbins.

For reasons having little to do with music, none of the dances here have held on to the repertory, as the Stravinsky and Copland ballets have, for example. Even Samuel Barber's Cave of the Heart, written for Graham, lives in its concert form as Médea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. I have no idea why this should be so, but I suspect the current situation says more about us than about the quality of the works.

Antheil based his Capital of the World on the Hemingway short story. I prefer abstract to "story" ballets, but if you're determined to tell a story, you might as well turn to a good storyteller for help. Paco, from the boondocks of Spain, dreams of becoming a bullfighter. He arrives in Madrid, for him "the capital of the world," to try to break in. He comes under the tutelage of a disillusioned bullfighter who resents Paco's idealistic view of the profession. In a practice session, with knives tied to the legs of a chair, Paco is gored and dies.

As presented here in abridged form, the ballet is in three parts. Virgil Thomson, whose taste for this sort of music I find absolutely reliable, praised this score. The music runs neither to Antheil's radical experimentalism of the Twenties, nor to the Shostakovich echoes of his late works. Stravinsky's seems the largest influence. The first part, which sets up the plot, I think the weakest. But the ballet really takes off in the second, with flamenco occupying much of the score, including the sound of the footwork (danced in the recording by Ballet Theatre's then-principal dancer, Roy Fitzell. Antheil considered this sound integral to the score, and I, for what it may be worth, agree with him. Fitzell and the orchestra don't always match rhythmically, but it's closer by a lot than most dancers I've seen. Why the José Greco troupe could nail rhythm and ballet dancers have such trouble with it remains a minor mystery. The final movement contains the music with the sharpest edges, and the Spanish influences become sublimated to Stravinskian ones, particularly Le Sacre, without any obvious quotes.

Undertow I think one of William Schuman's finest scores, hardly performed or recorded. He wrote it for Anthony Tudor, a choreographer habitually drawn to the pretentious. The libretto for this score, unfortunately, is no exception. It's supposedly a psychological account of a rapist-killer. Tudor calls the character The Transgressor, so I know I'm in for a long evening. Indeed, every character in this mess has some sort of faux-Jungian archetypal tag. It never occurs to some people that a character named Paco may be more universal than a character called The Transgressor, and that the abstract doesn't necessarily translate into the universal. As the title implies, The Transgressor is driven to kill, and yet realizes that he has indeed transgressed. The libretto doesn't try to resolve these contradictions, mainly because it's weak-minded. I should say, however, that I haven't seen this on stage, and the choreography may save it. Fortunately, the score stands strongly on its own. Although written in short sections to a narrative, Schuman doesn't overcome his symphonic habits. It's very tight – the idiom similar to his other works of the time (say, the third symphony) – and Schuman writes at his most inspired. For me, it works as a short symphony. The CD is worth having for this piece alone.

Raffaello de Banfield, an Italian composer born, improbably enough, at Newcastle upon Tyne, seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. This and his opera Lord Byron's Love Letter are apparently the only two of his works that have been remembered and (probably not a coincidence) to have been recorded. Banfield based The Combat on Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata, specifically the story of Tancred and Clorinda. The idiom mixes up Respighi with Hollywood Biblical epic. The plot eminently suits the ballet, with lots of opportunities for stylized battle-dances and a big love scene. I find the music attractive but slight, especially compared to the Antheil and the Schuman. Nevertheless, if you've got a sweet tooth like me, you may well find yourself coming back to it.

The performances are rough, but exciting. I do have problems with the recorded sound – way too bright, especially in the Banfield, whose orchestra emphasizes cymbals, brass, and high strings. It's not the sort of thing you want to listen to on a sinus headache. For those of you who care about such things, it's also mono. Nevertheless, it barely affects the Schuman, and I can live with it in the Antheil. Centaur has recorded what it bills as the "complete" Antheil ballet with Barry Kolman conducting the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (CRC 2293), but it leaves out the dancing – a serious omission. Neither of the other two ballets have available stereo recordings, as far as I know. I consider this the better choice, despite the sound.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz

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