For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to two full-length ballet scores.
Josh and I like to listen to ballet scores. Over the last couple of years, we have listened to two of Tchaikovsky’s complete ballet scores, “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker”, as well as Reinhold Gliere’s complete score for “The Red Poppy” and Sergei Prokofiev’s complete score for “Cinderella”.
Our recent round of listening involved one French ballet, Leo Delibes’s score for “Coppelia”, and one Russian ballet, Prokofiev’s score for “Romeo And Juliet”.
The discs we have been listening to are not among the very finest recorded versions of these scores. In fact, the discs we have been listening to were borrowed from my father’s music library and were deliberately chosen and brought with us to Boston based upon their total lack of distinction—my father will not necessarily mind if these discs are somehow lost, stolen or misplaced.
The “Coppelia” discs Josh and I have been listening to are the discs issued on the Erato label in 1994, performed by the Orchestre De L’Opera De Lyon under Kent Nagano.
This recording is nowhere near as fine as the great EMI recording of “Coppelia” made by Jean-Baptiste Mari, and it does not even measure up to either of the recordings of “Coppelia” on the Decca label made by Richard Bonynge. Nevertheless, the Erato discs allowed Josh to get to know this superb music, and in this respect the Erato recording has served its purpose.
“Coppelia” is a magnificent ballet score. It is easy to understand why Tchaikovsky admired this score enormously, believing, incorrectly, that his own first effort, “Swan Lake”, did not measure up to what Delibes had written just a few years earlier. Delibes’s gift of melody was endless, his command of musical characterization sure, his orchestration imaginative and beguiling. More importantly, Delibes knew how to construct a work for the stage, shaping it with the sure hand of a born dramatist. It is this particular quality that sets the score of “Coppelia” apart from every full-length ballet score that preceded it.
Even persons who are not familiar with the complete “Coppelia” score already know the two most famous tunes, the Mazurka and the Waltz, because these two tunes have somehow been implanted into the consciousness of every person in the Western World. Josh had never heard “Coppelia” before, but his eyes lighted up with recognition and delight the first time he heard these two great tunes emerge from the speakers during their first appearances in the ballet’s Overture. Where had Josh heard these tunes before? He had no idea—he only knew that he already knew them. My initial reaction was precisely the same the first time I heard the full score to “Coppelia” many years ago.
The Nagano recording is competent, so most of the joys of this great score may be experienced through the recording. However, the Nagano recording is nothing more than competent—the rhythms are not handled with enough lightness or with any subtly or charm, the conducting has very little characterization and no elegance whatsoever, and the orchestration comes across as much blander than in fact it is, a result of Nagano not knowing how to highlight and blend the various timbres of the orchestra. The music just churns along, with everything just a little too obvious and everything just a little too heavy-handed. These shortcomings are always the quintessential knocks against Nagano, who simply is not much of a conductor—he is not much of a technician and he is not much of an interpreter. Orchestras generally loathe working with him, and not simply because he has a reputation for being nasty and overbearing in rehearsal—orchestras also loathe him because he is so often unprepared and because he has nothing to offer the musicians, in rehearsal or in performance, other than beating time.
The quality of the Lyon orchestra does not help matters. The orchestra barely rises to a provincial standard. Intonation is always problematic, the standard of ensemble is wayward, the woodwinds have no individuality and lack distinctive timbres, the brass section strains just to hit the notes, and the quality of the string sound does not meet the standard of a proficient student orchestra in the U.S. These sectional deficiencies, alas, are on glaring display because Nagano does not know how to blend the different sections of the orchestra into a pleasing whole. Nagano’s many shortcomings result in a colorless reading of the score. It is hard to imagine a more lifeless “Coppelia”.
This recording was made for the French domestic market. It should never have been granted an international release (unless the French wanted to remind the world how shoddy their orchestras are).
The “Romeo And Juliet” recording we have been listening to is the Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Again, this recording is competent, but it has never challenged the classic Lorin Maazel recording on Decca or the classic Andre Previn recording on EMI, both recorded in the early 1970’s.
This recording was made in Boston in October 1986 and released a year later. Amazingly, it remains in print today (at full price, no less), a startling circumstance given how many superior recordings of the Prokofiev score are in the active catalog.
This recording was made during the years in which the Boston Symphony was in its greatest period of deterioration. The orchestra began the decade of the 1980’s as a great orchestra; the orchestra ended that decade as a regional ensemble. This was the only instance in the 20th Century of a great orchestra losing its greatness, a modern-day American equivalent of what had happened to the great Meiningen Orchestra in late 19th-Century Germany. However, when the Meiningen Orchestra lost its greatness, the Berlin Philharmonic rose to take its place. No American orchestra has risen to take the place formerly occupied by the Boston Symphony, leaving us now with only three great American orchestras: the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The villains of the Boston Symphony’s deterioration were Ozawa, who lacked the skills necessary to maintain a great orchestra, and the orchestra’s administration and Board, which failed to take the action necessary—Ozawa’s discharge—to halt an unbearable situation. The Boston administration and Board failed to act even though the orchestra’s decline was being followed closely by literally everyone in the music world, with mounting astonishment and disbelief.
The name of Seiji Ozawa should forever be damned in Boston, as should the names of the orchestra’s former administrators and Board members, all complicit in the fall from greatness of one of the world’s most exalted ensembles.
The deterioration in the quality of the playing evidenced on this 1986 recording is readily apparent to anyone familiar with the orchestra’s Deutsche Grammophon and Philips recordings from the late 1970’s, a period in which the orchestra still played at the highest level. The deterioration, over a relatively short period of time, is palpable. This is no longer the orchestra it had been only a few years earlier.
The beauty and transparency of the orchestra’s sound are gone. The string sound has become featureless, thick, sometimes glassy and often strident. The woodwinds no longer inspire and play off each other as they did in earlier years—they have simply lost interest in their music-making, and it shows in their impersonal and lackluster phrasing. The brass playing is abrupt, lacking sheen and brilliance (and confidence).
The orchestra has one sound when it plays softly, and another sound when it plays at full volume. Neither of those sounds is pleasing. When the orchestra plays softly, the sound is thin and unsupported. When the orchestra plays at full volume, the sound is rough, even blowsy. It is all very unpleasant.
The orchestra in 1986 no longer plays with the amazing accuracy of ensemble it commanded half a decade earlier. Attacks are tentative, phrasing is listless, phrase endings are no longer unanimous. There is no lightness and sparkle in the playing, and no rhythmic life. The musicians give absolutely nothing to the conductor.
This was all the result, according to those who were present at the time, of the orchestra’s unwillingness to continue to mask Ozawa’s shortcomings as a conductor. After five to seven years of carrying Ozawa, the members of the orchestra became tired of doing Ozawa’s job as well as their own, and they began marking time, awaiting Ozawa’s departure—which, tragically, was not to come for another fifteen years.
By 1986, the Boston Symphony no longer played as one collective player. Instead, the orchestra played as 100 individual musicians, all vastly talented, all individually admirable, but all operating on 100 different wavelengths. The result: playing no better than that of a good European radio orchestra.
Despite these disheartening deficiencies, the genius of Prokofiev’s score still comes through. The greatness of this score, surely the finest of all 20th-Century full-length ballet scores, is well-nigh indestructible. The music invariably makes its effect even in the hands of the lamest ballet orchestra.
This is so even though Ozawa’s reading of the score is more or less featureless. Tempi are often too broad, and some numbers are so slow that the thread of the story and the inherent tension of the music disappear. The great dramatic moments lack the impact they command on other recordings. There is no emotional commitment in Ozawa’s work, and a total absence of energy.
“Romeo And Juliet” can survive and thrive in a variety of treatments. Maazel brought a sharp, pointed, searing quality to the score, which emphasized the work’s drama. Previn brought an understated elegance and lift to the music, which gently emphasized the work’s emotional arcs. Ozawa, truly, brings nothing comparable to the score—and yet the score’s aching beauty still makes an impact, even in the hands of a hack.
Josh loved “Romeo And Juliet”. He thought “Romeo And Juliet” was the finest ballet score he had ever heard. It has become his personal favorite.
It is fortunate that my father has no further interest in the discs we borrowed from him. Last night, after we had finished listening to these discs and were returning them to their boxes, I broke disc two of “Coppelia”, which contains the music to Act III. The disc snapped in half as I was inserting it into its case.
This is only the third time in my life that this has happened. In the two previous occurrences, it was Erato discs that snapped in half, too. This makes me wonder whether Erato uses inferior materials in manufacturing its discs.
Our next round of listening will involve another group of discs whose absence my father will not miss (and whose possible destruction will not exactly be a tragedy, although I truly am not actively trying to break these discs). We will listen to Richard Strauss’s opera, “Salome”, which we will hear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York over Columbus Day Weekend. We will listen to “Salome” so that Josh can become familiar with the work. We have with us the Herbert Von Karajan recording on EMI, a recording my father loves, but the copy we have with us is not the only copy of the recording in the family.
We will supplement our “Salome” listening with a disc of Mozart Piano Concertos performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic on Teldec.
In the case of the Barenboim Mozart disc . . .now, THAT is a disc my father indeed is VERY happy to have out of the house!