French composer Adophe Adam (1803-1856) premiered Giselle in 1841, and since then it has been a staple of the Romantic ballet repertoire. And who better to record the ballet than Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? I mean, can you really name any recording by Marriner and the Academy that hasn’t been at least adequate to the occasion and most often a triumph? This reissue from Brilliant Classics, derived from a 1994 Capriccio recording, is good, even if it’s not among Marriner’s best work; what’s best is that Brilliant Classics offer it at a mid price, further discounted to almost half that cost at various Web sites.
However, if there is any snag in recommending this Marriner reissue, it’s that it goes head to head with Jean Martinon's 1958 recording, which has been my own first choice in this work for as long as I can remember. Currently, the folks at HDTT have Martinon’s recording available as an audiophile remaster, which, I have to admit, is superior in every way to Marriner’s. But the HDTT disc does cost a few dollars more, so the budget-conscious buyer might prefer the Marriner release in any case.
Understand, both the Marriner and Martinon recordings are single discs of highlights. The fact is, people have made many cuts, additions, and changes to the ballet's working score over the years, and Marriner and Martinon provide really no more than extended highlights suites. Yet they suffice nicely, the shorter scores probably best of all for home listening. At less than an hour, Marriner’s highlights have not only the advantage of conciseness but of continuity, presenting the work's best and most well-known music in a seamless medley. For those looking to buy the full score, I would suggest Fistoulari’s old recording with the LSO (Mercury) and Bonynge’s with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Decca), both in two-disc sets. They include almost every bit of music Adam ever wrote for the work, plus additional material he didn't write. However, in its longer form, much of Giselle can sound like filler, and for me the complete ballet can quickly wear out its welcome.
Anyway, the story of Giselle has all the ingredients for great listening: a supernatural, melodramatic plot involving dead spirits and curses and such; a young hero and heroine in love; a cruel if not downright evil villainess; and an appropriately rousing yet sentimental finale. Marriner and the ASMF bring out much of the beauty of this score, if not quite so sympathetically or so fervently as Martinon and his French players do.
The fact is, Marriner produces a fairly gentle reading of the score. If we were watching the ballet live, it would be most graceful and refined. His rendering certainly doesn’t have the dash or élan, to say nothing of the excitement, of Martinon’s, so we’re talking about an altogether different rendition with Marriner, one that exchanges a degree of passion for a dollop of charm. And charming Marriner is, as always. His is an elegant, suave interpretation from beginning to end. Just listen to the Retour des vendangeurs-Valse to get an idea of how graciously flowing Marriner and the Academy can make this music sound. Still, he can add an appropriate vigor to the proceedings, too, when needed, as in The Chase, the Marche des vignerons, and the Variations de loys.
OK, admittedly, Marriner can appear too relaxed, indeed too languorous, on too many occasions; yet it’s clearly part and parcel of his easygoing realization of the score, and you can hardly fault him for the consistency of his approach.
Capriccio Records made the album in 1994 at the Church of St. Jude on the Hill, London, and Brilliant Classics reissued it in 2012. The first thing one notices is that the sound has a reasonably wide dynamic range, a good impact, and a modest sense of depth. Along with an ultrasmooth midrange clarity and a warm resonance, they go a long way toward producing a pleasantly natural aura. While bass is unexceptional, the treble extension can impress one, and in a few instances the sonics can transport a listener to the concert hall. I don’t believe it’s great sound, but you’ll hear no complaints from me, either.