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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Complete Ballet Music from the Operas
Full contents listed at end or review
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England, 15-17 May 2011
HD Audio Blu-ray
Audio formats: 5.1 Surround. DTS-HD Master Audio. 2.0 Stereo
NAXOS BD-A NBD0027 [115:00]

Like his primo ottocento predecessors, Rossini and Donizetti, Verdi wrote little orchestral music, instead concentrating on opera. Several of these had substantial overtures that often featured, and still do occasionally, in orchestral concerts. Orchestral works that he wrote before his opera career took off he ordered to be destroyed. In fact a few pieces escaped this drastic cull.

Whilst Verdi’s operatic overtures generally used and developed themes from within the opera concerned, the ballet music he composed did not. There are a couple of exceptions, including that from Aida and these are really integral to the plot (CHs.10-12). The ballet music for the operas he composed for Paris therefore give the only indication that exists of his skills as an orchestral composer pure and simple. Except for the Aida excerpts all the other ballet music here is related to the Paris productions where an act three ballet was de rigueur. I list below the contents in the order they are played in this collection.

Verdi’s first venture to compose for Paris was at rather short notice and followed on from his only opera for London, I Masnadieri. This was premiered on 22 July 1847; it was his eleventh opera. In Paris, whilst seeing plenty of Giuseppe Strepponi, he agreed on a work for the Théâtre Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, (The Opéra). This was to be premiered in November 1847. With its high musical standards and generous fees, composition for The Opéra was considered the ultimate aspiration for all nineteenth century Italian composers.

Given the lack of time, Verdi followed the example of his great predecessors Rossini and Donizetti in adapting an existing work. The work chosen was I Lombardi alla prima crocciata of 1843, his fourth opera. This adaptation became, Jérusalem, premiered on 22 November. The French librettists, Royer and Väez, produced a libretto that was no mere translation of the Italian I Lombardi. Although the shape of the plot and the historical period of the crusades remained the same, the Italian crusaders of Lombardy became French, from Toulouse. Verdi wrote a new orchestral introduction to replace the brief prelude as well as the required ballet music. He also made substantial additions to the score. The changes are sufficient for Jérusalem to be considered a separate entity from I Lombardi. At over twenty-one minutes this remains one of Verdi’s longest orchestral pieces, second only to the ballet music he was later to compose for his twentieth opera, I vespri siciliani also for The Opéra.

The ballet music from Jérusalem is largely unknown, even on the concert platform. This may be prejudice about ‘rum-ti-tum’ music, a view some musicians have about music from his Verdi’s early career. That view is not supported by the music as performed here under Serebrier (CHs.5-8), which is light but not frothy. It would provide a challenge while satisfying the dancers at The Opéra as well as the audience.

The challenges of Paris and its musical standards kept Verdi interested in The Opéra and Jérusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in Verdi. Jérusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi, but the political upheavals in France and elsewhere in Europe in 1848, leading to the abdication of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second Empire, made that impossible. Although a regular visitor to Paris, where he saw the play on which he based La Traviata, Verdi did not return to present another opera in Paris until Les Vêpres Siciliennes, his twentieth opera, in 1855.

Verdi had signed the contract for an opera which was to become Les Vêpres Siciliennes, during the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852. He stipulated that Scribe would be the librettist and also that he would choose the main singers as well specifying dates for reception of the libretto and rehearsal schedules. All very good if it worked that way. Verdi soon discovered that Scribe was not really up to the job, let alone keeping to schedules, whilst the bureaucracy of The Opéra drove him to despair. He had to spend many months in Paris, meeting Scribe and doing battle with the organization to the extent that he wanted to withdraw from the contract. Perhaps an outcome of his time waiting for Scribe’s words was the creation of his longest ballet sequence of all, titled The Four Seasons (CHs.20-23). Its music fits in with the more lyrical moments of the opera whilst providing opportunities for the dancers. It, more than many of the other selections on this disc, is heard as a concert piece in its own right. It gets an excellent performance from the conductor and orchestra.

Whilst in Paris, Verdi also commissioned a French translation of Il Trovatore as Il Trouvère, providing the requisite ballet (CHs. 13-19). Careful listeners might recognize a nod towards the Anvil Chorus.

Verdi thought he had finished with Paris and The Opéra when, whilst on holiday with his wife in Genoa for the winter of 1863-1864, his Paris representative, Léon Escudier, visited them. He informed the composer that Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique had enquired if he would write ballet music for insertion into his 1847 score of Macbeth for performance at the theatre. Verdi’s response was more than Escudier could have hoped for, indicating that the composer wished to undertake a radical revision of the opera he had written eighteen years before. Verdi’s proposals for the revised Macbeth included new arias as well as adding the de rigueur ballet (CHs2-4). Whilst not using phrases or motifs from the opera the patina of the music is unmistakable as being related to the opera itself.

Although Verdi had talked about giving up composition after Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859, if the money and conditions were right he could be tempted. Whilst in Paris revising Macbeth, he was approached by Emile Perrin, director of the Paris Opéra, to write once more for the theatre. They were desperate for a Grand Opera of five acts and ballet to coincide with the Great Exhibition scheduled for 1867. With Meyerbeer dead Verdi was their only hope. With the helpful interventions of a mutual friend, Verdi put his earlier memories behind him, committed himself to do so the following year, the work to be in four or five acts, with ballet. The agreed subject was Don Carlos, based on Schiller’s long poem. The ballet, title La Pelegrina (CH.9) is a really delightful piece in which there are clear echoes of music from the body of the opera itself. In the later various efforts to shorten the length of Don Carlos, or its Italian form of Don Carlo, one of the first excises was and is, this delightful and evocative music, well performed here.

As I note above, the ballet music from Aida (CHs.10-12) is the only example where it is integral to the plot. It is here perhaps that it is fair to comment that José Serebrier, despite his obvious love of the music, is no Muti or Abbado, perhaps lacking their more extensive time and experience in the opera pit. Nonetheless he contributes a sensitive opening to this collection in the form of some of the last music the composer created for the stage when he presented his penultimate opera, Otello, a year after the premiere of Falstaff at La Scala. This is in seven short sections. Verdi asked his publisher to include descriptions of the seven sections. These are included in Serebrier’s accompanying leaflet essay.

This Blu-Ray disc is a reproduction of a double Naxos CD set issued in 2012 (review review review). Is there a benefit in the Blu-Ray format? Not visually: there is no conductor to watch or instrumentalists. The clue that will appeal to many listeners of classical music is to be found above under Audio Formats with the presence of 5.1 Surround and DTS-HD Master Audio to go along with the standard stereo.

Robert J Farr

Act III Scene 7: Ballabile [5:37]
Act III Scene 1: [10.12]
Act III Scene 1: Pas de quatre [21.33]
  Don Carlos
Act III Scene 2: Ballo della regina, "La Peregrina" [16:39]
Act I Scene 2: Dance No. 3: Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse [2:30]
Act II Scene 1: Dance No. 4: Danza dei piccoli schiavi mori [1:38]
Act II Scene 2: Dance No. 5: Ballabile [4:46]
  Il trovatore
Act III Scene 1: Pas des Bohémiens [5.56]
Act III Scene 2: Galop [17.07]
 I vespri siciliani (excerpts)
Act III Scene 2: Le quattro stagioni: L'inverno [29.25]