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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (excerpts) (1841) [47:30]
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Jean Martinon
rec. 5-7 November 1958, Maison de la Chimie, Paris. Transferred from LP (Decca SXL 2128)

HDTT were early leaders in the dash to high-definition audio with their meticulously prepared - and reasonably priced - tape and LP transfers. These classic recordings are available in a variety of physical and downloadable formats; I’ve reviewed a couple of the latter for Download News, and found the EMI/André Previn Nielsen Symphony No. 1 with the LSO a musical and sonic delight (review). As with this DeccaGiselle it was transferred direct from a pristine LP, so there are a few rough patches along the way. That matters little when the performances are this riveting, and the old analogue warmth of these originals has been so lovingly restored.
Not every transfer is a complete success, as I discovered when listening to HDTT’s 24/96 download of George Szell’s Cleveland Mahler Fourth (review). Unfortunately it doesn’t tame the bright and brittle sound of the CBS/Sony CDs, although I gather a re-master has been mooted. Despite some felicities the transfer of Martinon’s EMI recording of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume 47 and La Tragédie de Salomé is similarly flawed; indeed, I found it unlistenable at times (review). Still, one or two problematic issues aren’t enough to dilute my enthusiasm for HDTT’s output, so I jumped at the chance to review this Giselle, engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson and Ray Minshull.
Martinon gives us around two-thirds of this ground-breaking ballet, which had been orchestrated using the 1841 piano score until Henri Büsser’s orchestral score was published in 1924. A dark tale of love, jealousy, death and ghostly redemption Giselle brims with delectable tunes which, under Martinon’s direction, emerge with a Gallic lilt and charm that’s utterly irresistible. From the crisp and propulsive introduction to Act I it’s clear we’re in for something rather special. The Paris Conservatoire players may not be in the front rank but goodness they play their hearts out for this maestro. The Entrée de Loys is both poised and achingly beautiful; Martinon springs rhythms and refines sonorities superbly throughout.
As if that weren’t enough this performance is very theatrical - not a given in studio-bound ballet recordings - and the grander set pieces have a rare and palpable sense of spectacle. Just sample the goosebump-inducing fanfares of the Scène d’Hilarion for instance, where there’s no hint of glare or coarseness in louder passages. True there is some ‘crumble’ at the start of the Marche des vignerons and audible strain in the tuttis of the next track, but one can’t help but be swept away by the unfolding drama.
Balances are very believable and the dynamic range of this 55-year-old recording is remarkably extended; moreover, colours are vivid yet entirely natural - the levitating strings in the Act I Scène Finale are silky smooth - and there’s just enough bass weight too. As for momentum - so often a casualty in collections of this kind - I can’t fault this performance, which combines dramatic coherence with telling variety. In Act II’s Entrée et danse de Myrthe the nicely distanced harp swirls are as cooling raindrops on a famished landscape; really, I can’t recall hearing this music better played or recorded.
L’apparition de Giselle is imbued with such passion here; the strings dig deep and the fleeting woodwinds are simply glorious, both here and in the sometimes light-as-a-feather Entrèe de Loys et Wilfride. Beneath ALL this beats a strong pulse, so one never feels a slackening of tension or interest. The solo violin and harp contributions to the Scène des Wilis are magical, as is the recorded sound. Such ‘air’ and warmth is what the best analogue recordings were all about, and this one is no exception. Like GBS responding to a performance of Rossini’s Mosé in Egitto I’d be more than happy to wear away the ferrule of my umbrella abetting an encore at this point.
Adam’s redemptive Finale ends as the work began, with music of radiance, charm and seemingly endless agility. Not the overwhelming pathos of Swan Lake perhaps, but very satisfying nonetheless. The liner-notes are brief but informative, although there are a couple of typos that ought to have been corrected. You see, that’s how nit-picky one has to be to find fault with this disc. Even the short playing time isn’t an issue here.
Those wizards at Decca and HDTT have done it again; spell-binding from start to finish.
Dan Morgan