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Robert Irving: The Decca Recordings
Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Ballet suite no. 1 (arr. Mottl) (1896) [18:01]
André-Ernest-Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)
Céphale et Procris ballet suite (arr. Lambert) (1931) [20:33]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Le Cid Act 2 ballet music (1885) [18:33]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Les patineurs (arr. Lambert) (1937) [21:33]
Constant LAMBERT (1905-1951)
Horoscope ballet suite (1938) [25:44]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Façade suites 1 and 2 (1922/1931/1940) [20:53]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
The lady and the fool ballet suite (arr. Mackerras) (1954/1955) [16:59]
New Symphony Orchestra / Robert Irving (Gluck, Grétry and Verdi)
London Symphony Orchestra / Robert Irving (Massenet, Meyerbeer, Lambert and Walton)
rec. 14-16 July 1952 (Massenet and Meyerbeer), 26-27 February 1953 (Lambert), 10 and 27 March 1953 (Walton), 14-15 February 1955 (Gluck and Grétry) and 23 May 1955 (Verdi); Kingsway Hall, London and Carlton Rooms, Maida Vale, London (Verdi)
ELOQUENCE 482 7289 [78:57+63:54]

Robert Irving was one of the leading conductors of ballet in the middle of the last century.  Reviewing one of his performances with New York City Ballet in 1962, critic A. V. Cotton referred to “some of the finest playing of ballet music that can be heard anywhere” (Writings on dance 1938-1968 [London, 1975] p. 125], while six years later, as Graham Rogers’s useful booklet notes record, a New York Times writer considered him “possibly today’s finest conductor of ballets”.

Since Irving’s death in 1991 he has tended, however, to be overlooked, primarily because his recorded legacy was a comparatively small one.  Although the MusicWeb index throws up a handful of – almost invariably complimentary - references to him over the years, they often relate to shortish contributions included on compilation discs.  My own collection of recorded ballet is, I think, a pretty substantial one yet it includes just a single full disc of Irving as conductor, in which he leads the (pseudonymous?) Concert Arts Orchestra in a delightfully vivacious account of Glazunov’s The seasons (EMI Classics 7243 5 65911 2 7).

Why, given his critical reputation, was he so little recorded?  One obvious explanation is that, while the rather self-effacing Irving dabbled in other favourite pursuits such as horse racing, his rivals snapped up the high-profile studio work.  Thus, even while Irving was building that reputation as “possibly today’s finest conductor of ballets”, Decca, for instance, preferred to award Anatole Fistoulari no less than three consecutive contracts to record Swan lake in abridged or complete form (with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1952 [Decca Eloquence 482 5225], the Concertgebouw in 1961 [Eloquence 442 9032, review] and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972 [only currently available in a Phase 4 box, review]).  No matter how fine a ballet conductor Fistoulari was – and his 1952 and 1961 recordings are certainly very good indeed – it does seem odd that Irving didn’t get any sort of look-in at all.

Another reason why some recording opportunities may have passed Irving by in those years was that, in the minds of A&R executives at least, he was closely associated with insufficiently commercial ballet scores.  Many of those were products of the inter-war and immediately post-war years when some dance companies had jettisoned popular productions in favour of avant garde experimentation.  Frequently touching on contemporary socio-political issues or such short-lived fads as mysticism, symbolism, surrealism and most of the other fashionable -isms of the time, few of those badly-dated “works of dance art”, as A. V. Cotton [op. cit. p. 35] pointedly labelled them, went on to enjoy many – if any – revivals.  Post-war bean counters would have been all too aware of that fact.

Equally unfortunately, some of the material that Irving did record has not worn particularly well.  The first half of the 20th century saw something of a fashion for creating new ballets from pieces of music plucked from their original – usually 18th century – contexts and rearranged as mongrel scores.  Thus, on the current disc we have a “Gluck Ballet suite no. 1” and Céphale et Procris, while on the aforementioned EMI disc of The seasons the fillers were extracts from The good-humoured ladies and The wise virgins – adaptations of, respectively, pieces by Scarlatti and Bach.  Another example of the genre with which MusicWeb readers may be more familiar is The gods go a’begging, created from various Handel pieces as arranged by Thomas Beecham.  Listening to them on disc rather than heard in a theatre in support of dancers, one does begin to wonder whether such essentially insubstantial composite scores were created because their very blandness would not detract from the action on stage.  Stand-alone recordings of such lightweight, ephemeral creations need something extra if they are to make much of an impact and, while a few exceptionally gifted conductors such as Beecham may be able to add the requisite magic, not everyone has that knack.

This new Decca Eloquence release restores more of Robert Irving’s recordings to the catalogue while simultaneously providing an opportunity to hear some ballet scores that are not often encountered these days.  Oddly enough, the first plaudits need to go to producers Peter Andry and John Culshaw and balance engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, for the superbly transparent recordings – all in mono – that allow us to appreciate Irving’s and his two orchestras’ work to the full.  Ironically, perhaps, that is especially apparent in the Gluck and Grétry tracks where the many delicately scored passages are most beautifully executed by the musicians of the New Symphony Orchestra. Irving clearly had a very fine ear when it came to orchestral balance and the felicitous detail constantly revealed in these performances is an utter delight.  His expert control of dynamics is also apparent in every track.

It is, however, the more modern repertoire that comes off best.  Of the ballets based on 19th century scores, the familiar foot-tapping and finger-snapping “Spanish” rhythms of Massenet’s Le Cid are most effectively delivered, while Irving’s recording of Constant Lambert’s clever rearrangement of Meyerbeer themes to depict a party of ice-skaters is equally winningly done.

John Cranko’s ballet The lady and the fool (review) is probably something of an acquired taste.  Critic Richard Buckle, reviewing a mid-1960s production, was reluctant to describe it with the over-used word camp, but that was certainly the conclusion that he wanted his readers to draw: “it was going a bit far to put on Cranko’s The lady and the fool… After all, what may the tourists think?  We are not going to use that four-letter word denoting excessive mannerism of a sometimes hysterical type, much used in the theatrical profession…” (Richard Buckle Buckle at the ballet [London, 1980], p. 148).  The music heard on its own, however, is quite enjoyable.  While I stand in general by my earlier assertion that listening to artificially created scores in the absence of stage action can sometimes lead to an anti-climactic sense of “What’s-the-point?”, on this occasion a selection of ear-catching Verdi tunes cleverly moulded together by Charles Mackerras and idiomatically delivered by Irving and the New Symphony Orchestra proves a welcome exception to the rule.  Incidentally, I wonder who the members of that – clearly very skilled – orchestra actually were. Was the New Symphony Orchestra a temporary pick-up band? Or perhaps a well-known orchestra was forced to adopt a pseudonym on this occasion for contractual reasons?

Within just a decade or so of its 1923 premiere, Walton’s Façade had been adapted and rearranged for dancers.  Considering the production choreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1931, Cyril W. Beaumont, still the doyen of ballet encyclopaedists, thought that the revised score was felicitously in exact accord with the action on stage - “conceived in a spirit of light burlesque with little satirical touches… everything is up-to-date, frivolous, and as light as a chocolate éclair” (Complete book of ballets [London, 1937] pp. 990-991).  It seems reasonable to assume that a ballet specialist like Robert Irving might have owned a copy of Beaumont’s magisterially authoritative tome, and perhaps it’s not too fanciful to imagine that he was inspired by those very words, for his performance here puts them perfectly into practice.

Constant Lambert’s five-part suite from the ballet Horoscope is, I think, the highlight of this two-disc set.  Cyril Beaumont was again spot-on when he admiringly described the complete score as “distinguished, vari-coloured, and full of bold and strongly-marked rhythms” (Supplement to Complete book of ballets [London, 1942] p. 114).  It may, incidentally, be heard in a modern recording that was much admired by my colleague Jonathan Woolf (review).  Lambert’s sophisticated yet accessible music has about it more than a hint of a film score, a characteristic possibly explained by the fact that the composer was becoming, at the time, increasingly involved with music as presented on screen.  In the later 1930s he arranged or conducted the music for four of the experimental BBC TV broadcasts made at that time by the Vic-Wells Ballet Company – Les patineurs (Meyerbeer, 1937), Bar aux Folies-Bergère (Chabrier, 1938), Checkmate (Bliss, 1939) and The sleeping princess (Tchaikovsky, 1939) – before moving on in 1940 to pen an original score for a wartime morale-boosting documentary film Merchant seamen.  In an entirely idiomatic and convincing account of the Horoscope suite’s powerful score – making an interesting contrast to the composer’s own composite one (review) - Robert Irving once again, as so often on these discs, more than delivers the balletic goods.

Rob Maynard

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