French Ballet Music (CD review)

Delibes, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Massenet, and Gounod. Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 31816 2 3.

Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) was born into a wealthy family, his grandfather having invented Beecham's Pills. As a young man, Thomas wanted to pursue music, but his father insisted the boy go to Oxford, which the son hated. Beecham the younger would have his way, though, studying music privately and then essentially buying his own orchestra. Fellow conductors seemed forever split in their opinions of Beecham, some of them early on calling him a mere dilettante. However, he proved them wrong through his pure love of music and his conductorial and organizational skills. Beecham championed new music; formed several orchestras that are well and alive today (the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic, for instance); preferred recording in the studio to performing before live audiences, thus producing a multitude of phonograph records; and generally earned the devotion and respect of an adoring public.

Like a limited few great conductors of his generation, Beecham lived long enough to record a good number of performances in stereo during the last half dozen or so years of his life; Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Otto Klemperer, and a couple of others were in a like situation. And because Beecham remained at his best into his last years, he left us a wonderful legacy of fine-sounding albums, among which is this disc of French Ballet Music (and although there are a couple of items in mono, they are still sound fine).

People often speak of the "Beecham magic." The fact is, his music making never failed to charm listeners with its light but firm touch. He wasn't a conductor to attack scores with fury or offer up lightning-fast or gravitas-laden productions. Instead, he seemed genuinely to love every note he wrung from an orchestra; you could feel the man's delight in the music he made, and you couldn't help but share in his joy. Moreover, he had a special affinity for the music of France, making this album a particular pleasure.

The disc includes fourteen selections from six French composers:  seven excerpts from Leo Delibes's Le Roi s'amuse; Claude Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the "Cortege et air de danse" from L'Enfant prodigue; Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse des pretresses de Dagon" and "Bacchanale" from Samson et Dalila; Hector Berlioz's "Danse des sylphes" and "Menuet des follets" from La Damnation de Faust; Jules Massenet's "Valse" from Cendrillon; and Charles Gounod's "Ballet Music" from Faust, all performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The opening suite from Delibes, a collection of seven dances and scenes from Le Roi s'amuse, is largely sweet and light, with Beecham presenting them up in the most delicate possible manner. The highlight of the set, though, is Debussy's Faun, music as sexy and seductive as any you'll find. You can almost feel the sensual atmosphere of the piece dripping from the speakers. The rest of the works follow suit, each of them a little cream puff (or bonbon?) of charm, with the "Bacchanale" from Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila exhibiting plenty of exotic verve, while Berlioz's sylphes practically float before our eyes (or ears).

Recorded between 1957 and 1959 in London and Paris, the stereo sound is beautifully clean and open, with a splendidly airy high end. Although the bass is thin, it isn't really a presence in most of the music, anyway. The strings glisten, the midrange shows excellent detail, and the upper bass provides a pleasant warmth. A good degree of stage depth complements the naturalness of the acoustic. In the stereo numbers, there is a wide spread, and even the few monaural items come off with a fair amount of bloom. Most of the music has little or no background noise, while a couple of others display a soft but noticeable hiss.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa