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Witches' Brew
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Tam O'Shanter Overture, Op. 55 (1955) [7:59]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition: Gnomus (1874; orch. Ravel) [2:38]
A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867; arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) [11:19]
Camille SAINT-SANS (1835-1921)
Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874) [7:07]
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel and Gretel: Witch's Ride (1893) [4:12]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1861) [10:51]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Funeral March of a Marionette (1872) [4:37]
Faust: Ballet Music (1869) [16:16]
New Symphony Orchestra of London, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Alexander Gibson
rec. Kingsway Hall, 1957/59
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9985 [65:32]

A lively theme programme, which, for all its "Pops" trappings, offers some fine, even distinctive, music-making. Alexander Gibson sets mobile, sometimes motile, tempi, drawing alert rhythmic address, crisp articulation, and clear textures from both his orchestras.

Such attentiveness makes for striking performances of the most familiar scores here. The opening of the Liszt rides buoyantly on the sense of rhythmic upbeats. The move into the main theme is needlessly heavy, but spanking-clean violin runs supply dash and propulsive energy. Gibson gauges the relaxation into the second theme nicely — you can still feel the syncopations against the basic waltz rhythm — and keeps the third group moving along. It doesn't rival the Solti account (Decca) in sheer muscular horsepower, but it's well done.

The conductor similarly refreshes the other chestnuts. The witches of Danse macabre stride proudly. In the Witch's Ride, the lighter textures are dexterous, while the tuttis have a strutting swing; at 2:05, both themes register equally in the counterpoint. A Night on the Bare Mountain is zesty, with crisp, mostly precise staccatos. The unison woodwinds at 6:28 aren't quite together, and, in the following passage, the nervous upper instruments pull ahead of the syncopated brasses; the coda, however, has an easy, spacious flow. Gnomus is played enthusiastically, though the players sound vaguely insecure.

The Gounod items weren't on the original LP. The Faust ballet music doesn't sound particularly witchy; it's thematically pertinent, however, since the opera treats devilish dealings. The horns' contribution to the opening Les Nubiennes is a bit heavy, and the concluding Danse de Phryn, while energetic, feels square; otherwise, the dances are characterful. The contrasting section of the Adagio is graceful, and Gibson shapes the Variations du miroir with elegance and point.

The Funeral March of a Marionette probably won't sway potential purchasers either way, but it's nicely turned. If Ormandy's classic account (Sony) weaves an otherworldly atmosphere from dark sonorities, Gibson evokes it with, again, crisp, light playing within an easy, natural flow.

Alas, the one comparative novelty, Malcolm Arnold's Tam O'Shanter Overture, is a dead loss. The ambiguously tonal gestures at the start, bunched up ominously in the lower octaves, are eerie enough. Unfortunately — save for some all-too-brief, dancing bits in triple time, la Sorcerer's Apprentice — those noisy gestures make up the preponderance of the piece. Where is the structure or, for that matter, the musical substance?

The sound is colourful enough. The bassoon duets in the Arnold register with depth, and the clarinet at 6:27 of the Mussorgsky is impressively present. We could have used a few seconds' pause between the end of Mussorgsky's Night and the beginning of the Saint-Sans, and there's an audible splice at the start of Gounod's Adagio.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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