Uncovering Delibes's Vivid Ballet Scores

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We at WQXR don't encounter too many recordings by ballet orchestras. Perhaps there's a stigma attached to a brand of symphonic work that is all too easily dismissed as a sonic carpet for the dancers on stage.

But while some dance companies accept this attitude with a shrug of the shoulders (or settle for taped music), it does not appear to be the case at the San Francisco Ballet. The oldest professional ballet company in America, it is also one of the first dance companies to have its own permanent body of musicians. The company has a new recording that pairs Léo Delibes’s Coppélia and Sylvia, shedding light on these vivid and tuneful ballet scores.

Composed in the 1870s, Coppélia and Sylvia are two of the most richly melodic and danceable ballet scores of their era, and remain a core part of most companies' repertoire. Sylvia, a romance set in antiquity, abounds with melodic grace and rhythmic verve. Led by conductor Martin West, the San Franciscans brings out its many colorful gestures, such as the alto saxophone solo in the Act III barcarolle (Delibes was one of the first composers to write for the alto sax).

Delibes's earlier ballet Coppélia, or “The Girl with Enamel Eyes,” is the story of the young peasant girl, Swanhilda, who disguises herself as a mechanical doll. It immediately established its composer's reputation as a leading ballet composer. Justifiably so – from the broad, sweeping melody of the prelude to the brilliant gallop finale, it does not have a moment that is not delightful. There is no profundity here, only the enchanting melodies and rhythms of the dance.

As the spring ballet season gets underway, here are two seldom-recorded scores that stand on their own merits.

Delibes: Sylvia and Coppélia
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra
Conducted by Martin West
Reference Recordings
Available at Arkivmusic.com