Music for ballets has been composed by some of the greatest composers since music as we know it today began, and a good deal of it has found its way into the concert repertory, either in whole or in suites prepared by the respective composers, or simply in the form of excerpts. At the same time, innumerable concert works have been used as is or adapted for service in ballets, only to come back to the concert hall in new form. One ballet score in particular, which straddles these categories, has been inexplicably absent from the concert hall and mysteriously neglected by the recording companies, despite its unarguable attractiveness: Scuola di ballo -- "School of Dancing" -- whose brilliant, vivacious score was fashioned by the aptly named French composer Jean Françaix from movements of Luigi Boccherini’s astonishingly numerous and substantial string quintets. Its nearest parallels in substance may be Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, based on music attributed (mostly in error) to Pergolesi, and the contemporaneous Good Humoured Ladies, which the otherwise forgotten Vincenzo Tommasini spun out of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas -- but Scuola di ballo clearly has the best tunes. And Françaix’s witty treatment suits them down to the ground.
Like his earlier compatriot Scarlatti, Boccherini spent some of his most productive years in Spain and died in Madrid. He made use of Spanish forms and some actual Spanish tunes in more than a few of his works -- particularly in his several quintets for guitar and strings, one of which is an impression of the night watch in Madrid, and another includes a celebrated Fandango. Not all of his compositions betray a Spanish influence, but every one of them is filled with good tunes. So rich was his source of them that even Mozart based a movement in his own D major Violin Concerto, K.218, on one of Boccherini’s slow movements. He was an admired cellist as well as a prolific composer, and enriched that noble instrument’s repertory with sonatas, concertos, and dozens of string quintets in which the fifth instrument is a second cello. The minuet from one of them was notoriously popular on its own for years, as was a cello concerto the 19th-century virtuoso Friedrich Grützmacher cobbled together from parts of two different Boccherini concertos.
Today, of course, Boccherini’s numerous concertos, symphonies, sinfonie concertanti, and his chamber music are well represented in "authentic" recordings, and they are endlessly refreshing, but in 1933 it was a matter of excavating the virtually unknown when the young Jean Françaix, with obvious enthusiasm and genuine affection, undertook his treatment of Boccherini’s music to create the score for Scuola di ballo. The ballet, devised by Léonide Massine and based on a frivolous but engaging comedy by Goldoni, had apparently come into being as early as 1924, but was far more successful after being reintroduced with the perfect match in sound created by Françaix.
Françaix (1912-1997) was a master pianist as well as a fine composer, and he formed a duo with the superb cellist Maurice Gendron, who was himself a Boccherini enthusiast. They made several memorable recordings together (their account of Beethoven’s A major Sonata, Op.69, rivals the legendary one by Emanuel Feuermann and Myra Hess), and Gendron undertook to reestablish Boccherini’s reputation as a composer of concertos by editing, performing and recording some of them in authentic versions. In his valuable recording of the one on which the Grützmacher conflation was largely based, his conductor was the legendary cellist Pablo Casals.
In respect to recorded Boccherini, anyone who may have the Angel LPs, or the subsequent Testament CD reissues, of the extended series of Boccherini quintets performed by the Italian ensemble named for them (the Quintetto Boccherini), may enjoy going through them to spot the specific movements Françaix chose for his ballet score. One of them, the remaining fragment of an otherwise lost work, is called "Il ballo tedesco" ("The German Ball"), and turns up under the French equivalent "Danse allemande" as the eighth of the ten sections of Scuola di ballo recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Antal Doráti in July 1939.
That recording, a well chosen 17 minutes of music issued in the UK by English Columbia, and in the US by its eponymous American affiliate, turned out to be an outstanding example of the sort of thing on which our "Keepers" series is based: an ideal coming together of repertory and interpreter, in a sonic frame especially well suited to this particular performance of this particular work -- and in this instance the only recording of this material for well over 60 years. Perhaps its very perfection discouraged others from having a go at this music. In any event, this wonderful recording brought to an end an important early phase in the remarkable career of one of the most respected conductors of the 20th century -- and, among the many who have cherished it, subsequently raised the question of why Doráti never got back to this piece.
Doráti (1906-1988) began his career, at age 18, where all European conductors did for ages: in the opera house -- first in his native Budapest and then in successively higher posts in Dresden and Münster. In 1933 he took a position with the Ballets Russes, the company that had inherited the legacy of the legendary impresario Serge de Diaghilev. He shared conducting responsibilities with Efrem Kurtz until 1938, when the company split into two rival factions: Kurtz went with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with Massine as artistic director, and Doráti went with Colonel W. de Basil’s Covent Garden Ballet Russe. The latter company, which had Michel Fokine as artistic director, and performed at Covent Garden with Beecham’s splendid London Philharmonic in the pit, toured throughout Europe, in the Americas, and in Australia and New Zealand, as the Original Ballet Russe; on those tours Doráti attracted a great deal of attention for his mastery of the dance scores, and also for his increasingly frequent orchestral concerts.
He made his first recordings for EMI between 1936 (at age 30) and 1939. Some were issued on the HMV label, some on English Columbia, but all were with the LPO and all were directly related to his ballet repertory. Among the titles were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (at that time a staple of the dance repertory in Fokine’s treatment, which Diaghilev had introduced in 1911, the same year as Petrushka); Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Hamlet (the composer’s shortened form of his overture-fantasy, for use with his incidental music for the drama); a generous set of excerpts from Swan Lake, taking up four 78rpm discs); Baron d’Erlanger’s ballet The Hundred Kisses; the Chabrier-derived score for Cotillon; dances from Dargomizhsky’s opera Rusalka; some excerpts from Stravinsky’s Baiser de la fée; Roger Desormière’s arrangement of Johann Strauss pieces for the ballet Le Beau Danube -- and Scuola di ballo. One might have expected Kurtz to record this work, since it was he who had presided over the ballet’s premiere in 1933 and he was also active on both the HMV and Columbia labels at that time, but the assignment fell to Doráti, and it seemed the score was tailor-made for him.
Like his colleague Desormière, Doráti was a composer as well as a conductor, and he himself created a wildly successful ballet score built on the music of the Waltz King and his family: the famous Graduation Ball, which he recorded three times, with different orchestras. He also adapted music of Offenbach for two ballets: Helen of Troy and Bluebeard. When the war brought touring to a standstill, Doráti found himself in New York, where he became music director of the newly formed American Ballet Theatre; he made his first American recording -- Falla’s music for El Amor brujo -- with the ABT orchestra, for American Decca. He then began appearing more frequently as a guest conductor with major American orchestras, and in 1945 he began his remarkable career as an "orchestra builder," as music director of the reorganized Dallas SO.
In Dallas Doráti continued recording ballet music -- his first (and in many respects the most stunningly performed) Graduation Ball, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite, and a knockout account of Glazunov’s marvelous score for The Seasons, with only two small cuts -- but he was no longer limited to the ballet repertoire: he also recorded piano concertos of Liszt (No.1, with Arthur Rubinstein) and Prokofiev (No.3, with William Kapell). After four years in Dallas, Doráti moved on to the Minneapolis SO (today’s Minnesota Orchestra). For RCA Victor, which then had a contract with the orchestra, he recorded only a handful of works, but when the orchestra moved to Mercury his recording activity went into high gear. With the Chicago SO’s having moved back to RCA Victor when Fritz Reiner succeeded Rafael Kubelík in 1953, Doráti stepped in to complete that orchestra’s commitment to Mercury by recording two LPs in Chicago (Bartók, Kodály, Schubert, Tchaikovsky), and his own Minneapolitans became the flagship orchestra for Mercury’s "Living Presence" series as it sailed into the stereophonic era, with landmark recordings of works ranging from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss to Bartók, Respighi, Ravel, Stravinsky and Copland. Ballet music was by no means abandoned, but from his base in Minneapolis Doráti established himself as a major conductor in the broadest range of the symphonic repertory, and he began expanding his base in Europe.
Doráti’s recordings for Mercury -- with his Minneapolis orchestra, with the London SO (with which he had a long, close and exceptionally productive relationship, without holding a title), with the refugee orchestra called the Philharmonia Hungarica, and still others -- became the stuff of legend. In his subsequent tenures as music director of the National SO in Washington and the Detroit SO, as well as his titled positions or close relationships with the Stockholm Philharmonic, the BBC SO, the London SO and the Royal Philharmonic, the exceptional breadth of his repertory was constantly expanded, and this was reflected in his recordings -- for Mercury, Decca, Philips, Vox/Turnabout, BIS and other labels in such locales as London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Bamberg and Stockholm. His teachers Bartók and Kodály loom large in his huge discography, as do Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Tchaikovsky, and Joseph Haydn. With the Philharmonia Hungarica, on Decca, he recorded all of Haydn’s symphonies; for Philips, he recorded nine Haydn operas, with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra and hand-picked casts; with his wife, the pianist Ilse von Alpenheim, as soloist, he recorded all of Haydn’s keyboard concertos in Bamberg for Vox. (While all of these have been reissued on CD, Ilse von Alpenheim’s recordings of all the Haydn sonatas, also for Vox, have not; one hopes those master tapes, wherever they are, are being carefully preserved and will yet reappear.)
With all this, Doráti never lost his genuine enthusiasm for music for the dance. Earlier it was expected that he would capitalize on his early ballet experience, but even after demonstrating his mastery in the regular symphonic fare, that experience, and the genuine enthusiasm it instilled in him, were too valuable to be ignored. It was not only apparent in his few recordings in Dallas, but in his many from Minneapolis; one of his earliest recordings there, for RCA Victor, was his own score for Helen of Troy, and among his earliest Minneapolis recordings for Mercury were his history-making monophonic sets of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets in their complete form. He subsequently remade The Nutcracker with the LSO, again for Mercury, and in Amsterdam he remade both that work and The Sleeping Beauty for Philips. Among his last recordings were such large-scale works as Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and his own symphonies, on BIS, and, for Decca, a handsome collection of Strauss waltzes with the LPO (Doráti was one of the very few conductors who included the extended introduction to Wine, Woman and Song) and his only recording with the Vienna Philharmonic: his final account of his own Graduation Ball, absolutely uncut. (Both of these Decca items are available now in Universal’s Australian Eloquence series.)
Since Doráti remade more than a few of the titles in his discography as new techniques in sound recording and new formats for playback came into being, we have to wonder why he never returned to Scuola di ballo, in the nearly 50 years in which he might have remade this title, and why he never performed the piece it in concerts. The 1939 recording, from his last pre-war sessions in London, was so much in demand at the time the war ended that American Columbia reissued it with newly designed cover art, and in the early 1950s brought it out again on a low-priced "Entré" LP (RL-3043, with Sir Malcolm Sargent’s postwar recording of Sir Hamilton Harty’s engaging John Field Suite on side B). As perhaps the most heavily recorded conductor of his time, Doráti must have had the power to record what he wanted to record, and surely his admiration for his lifelong friend Jean Françaix was never in question: as late as 1965, in London, he recorded Françaix’s sparkling Concertino for piano and orchestra, with the composer’s daughter Claude as soloist. (It may be heard on Mercury CD 434 335-2.)
It might be noted, however, that Kurtz, who conducted the premiere of Scuola di ballo, did not record it or include it in concert programs. Among the recordings he made with the LPO in the same period as Doráti was the very first of any part of the brand-new (1938) Gaîté Parisienne: a clutch of effervescent excerpts from the Offenbach/Rosenthal score which, like Scuola di ballo, filled four 78rpm sides and was issued by Columbia. After the war, American Columbia, which had enjoyed terrific sales of that recording, had Kurtz remake his Gaîté Parisienne sequence with a hand-picked orchestra in New York. The remake was excellent in every respect, but not quite a match for Kurtz’s own earlier recording, and perhaps this example was a deterrent to the idea of having Doráti remake Scuola di ballo.
In any event, nobody recorded Scuola di ballo again until 2001, when Hyperion included the entire ballet score (about eight minutes more than the 17 recorded by Doráti) in a collection of Françaix’s works performed by the Ulster Orchestra under Thierry Fischer (issued the following year on CDA67323). Alas, it is not an adequate substitute, let alone a replacement. Despite the enthusiastic reviews cited on the tray card, it strikes me as a dreary, inelegant and rather lifeless affair, which only makes the old Doráti recording the more treasurable, despite its unavoidably dated sound -- which in a broader context might be said to add to its vivid authenticity as representing the era in which it was made.
Actually, the sound is not as dated as might have been expected. The image of the chamber-orchestra forces is a realistic one, the full character of the individual instruments is clearly intact, and the overall balance is quite good as heard on CD transfers from two British labels. Both discs are filled out with more of Doráti’s pre-war LPO material. On Pearl GEM 0036, issued in 1998, the additional titles are Le Beau Danube, The Hundred Kisses, and Cotillon. Dutton CDBP 9757, issued in 2005, offers the same line-up except that Le Beau Danube is replaced by the Dargomizhsky and Stravinsky pieces mentioned earlier in this essay.
On both CDs, Scuola di ballo is given pride of place, at the end of the program. The Dutton disc, in fact, is given the collective title Scuola di ballo, and its booklet cover is a reproduction of the artwork for the American Columbia 78rpm album. Both CDs do well by the piece, but a choice between them might be based on more than the difference in content noted above. The Pearl CD provides annotation which provides some interesting background on what became of Diaghilev’s fabulous organization, and each of the ten sections of Scuola di ballo is instantly accessible on a track of its own. Dutton offers no annotation at all, and lays this work out on just four tracks, corresponding to the four sides of the original 78s -- but these are trivial concerns, while the measurably superior sound quality on Dutton may be a decisive one. It happens also that the Dutton CD is offered at a "super-budget" price, and will be easier to find, as it is distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA (as is the less-than-competitive Hyperion CD of the complete score), though the Pearl appears to be available from Amazon.com, HB Direct, and other retailers importing it on their own.
Those interested in this Doráti recording and/or others from the various stages of his long career may wish to acquaint themselves with the work of the British-based Antal Doráti Centenary Society, which has published a biographical overview by its co-founder Richard Chlupaty, illuminated with articles and commentaries from various sources as well as a chronological list of concert and ballet performances, and is preparing reissues of rare Doráti recordings going back to the conductor’s Dallas years.
. . . Richard Freed