Some of the most directly appealing of all the music written to exploit the color resources of the modern orchestra has been composed for ballets. We might mark as an especially golden era the half-century that began with the first production of Delibes' "Coppelia" in 1870 and ended in 1920 with the composition of Ravel's "La Valse" and Stravinsky's "Pulcinella."
During that period, Delibes added his "Sylvia," Tchaikovsky created all three of his great ballets, Falla his two, Debussy composed "Jeux," Ravel gave us "Daphnis et chloe" and other dance works, Stravinsky started off with his own big three, Prokofiev with "Ala and Lolly" (the "Scythian Suite") and "Chout," Respighi turned Rossini tunes into "La Boutiquie fantasque," and so on, and on.
Much of this music has been enormously popular in our concert halls, and perhaps even more son on records. Such brilliant material provides a challenge and a showcase for the recording engineer as well as the virtuoso conductor, and it continues to be prominent among releases cited for sonic excellence. Two such have come from Phillips recently -- both with Dutch orchestras under conductors who have not been especially identified with the ballet.
The first is a complete "Firebird" played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Colin Davis (9500.637; cassette 7300.752). It may seem odd that, so shortly after Bernard Haitink recorded all three of Stravinsky's early ballets with the London Philharmonic for the same label, Davis would do them over with Haitink's remaining orchestra. But this is a stunning release. The performance itself is far more persuasive than Davis' "Petrushka" or "Rite of Spring," and it is enhanced considerably by the recording. the disc's pure winds, brilliant brass and shatteringly realistic drums might lead many listeners to mistake it for a digital product. The range, in terms of both color and dynamics, is quite exceptional, and the focus is consistent, with no trick spotlighting to benefit this or that section.
Hardly less impressive sonically is the new complete "Coppelia" with the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its American conductor David Zinman (6769.035, two discs; 7699.126, two cassettes). The Rotterdam orchestra is not the equal of the Concertgebouw's but it is a fine one in its own right, and zinman shows an affection for the score. I don't think it was only my awareness of the recording local, though, that made me think of wooden shoes during opening Mazurka; that segment is a little heavy-handed, but all that follows is smooth as silk.
This delicious score comes to life still more engagingly, however, under the more enlivening baton of Jean-Baptiste Mari (Angel SB-3843). Mari's rhythms are more virbrant in their spring, he show greater animation in his phrasing, and perhaps in the Paris Opera Orchestra's greater familiarity with the piece helps a bit too. An unfortunate slur in the famous clarinet solo in the "Theme slave varie" (perhaps the French player's fault, perhaps a tape stretch) is a conspicuous, if fleeting, disfigurement -- but the competent Rotterdam clarinetist doesn't make much of his opportunity at this point. Angle's recording, if less sumptuous than Philips', is still very good by any standards, and the set not only costs a couple of dollars less, but has the advantage of a sensible gatefold container, as opposed to Philips' wastefully thick box (big enough for sylvia , too, and then some).
Philips is waiting to enter the digital arena until it can market its new playback system, involving 4 1/2-inch variable-speed discs and laser beams; in the meantime this company continues to show what spectacular sound can be achieved via analog procedures while some of the other "majors" offer digital recordings made with various systems.