Two Frederick Ashton ballets in one exquisite evening performance. Principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae dance Ashton’s Rhapsody, created for The Royal Ballet in 1980 with the star parts taken by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier. Ashton provided spectacular choreography to suit the dancers’ virtuoso abilities. Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov lead a charismatic cast in Ashton’s poignant and heart-warming reflection on love, The Two Pigeons, based on an old French folktale and first performed on Valentine’s Day 1961.
These two ballets by the Company’s Founder Choreographer capture The Royal Ballet’s famous skill and distinctive style. Barry Wordsworth conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in the rapturous Rachmaninoff and Messager scores.
Composer: Sergey Rachmaninoff
Dancers: Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor: Barry Wordsworth
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
The Two Pigeons
Composer: André Messager
The Young Girl: Lauren Cuthbertson
The Young Man: Vadim Muntagirov
A Gypsy Girl: Laura Morera
Her Lover: Ryoichi Hirano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor: Barry Wordsworth
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
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Royal Ballet you have done it again – beautiful understated sets; stunning chiaroscuro (dark-light-dark-light-dark) lighting; fabulous costumes; astonishing choreography; wonderful cinematography; spell-binding music; breathtaking dancing; and mesmerising story-telling all melded together to deliver humbling, awe-inspiring rhapsodic expression and tense, terse drama filled with gripping action and fabulous artistic expression that is utterly POTENT in its execution.
For me, ‘Rhapsody’ is akin to George Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ - presenting the opportunity to showcase the astonishing virtuosity of the dancers AND the orchestra – and what jewels we have in Natalia Osipova, Steven McRae, and the amazing pianist that is Robert Clark.
The fabulous dancers and the astonishing corps de ballet deliver a flurry of frenzy and excitement to the augmented fifths and diminished ninths of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Variations on a theme by Paganini’ as Robert Clark delivers a stunning execution full of fire and virtuosity.
As we arrive at Rachmaninoff’s ‘eighteenth variation’ of Paganini’s ‘A minor caprice’, Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae deliver one of the finest pas-de-deux I have ever had the joy and pleasure to witness. The power and the moving spirituality between the two dancers and the pianist is awesome. I am reminded of the Bolshoi Ballet’s presentation of Rita and Yashka’s pas de deux tango from ‘The Golden Age’ - choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich and performed by Natalia Bessmertnova and Gediminas Tarandra (Available on ‘Russian Ballet Highlights’ DVD – 50-51011-6859-2-7 – check out the ROH shop).
If ‘Oscars’ were to be awarded for ballet and musicianship then these three gifted artists would win everything. As to Osipova - this remarkable gifted prima ballerina is clearly the 21st Century’s ‘Ballerina Absoluto’ – raising the bar above Margot Fonteyn.
Having seen the astonishing virtuosity of our Royal Ballet through Frederick Ashton’s visionary choreography, the next – and obvious thing to do is to showcase their story-telling capabilities – and Frederick Ashton’s ‘The two pigeons’ presents the perfect platform to do just that.
This deeply moving piece depicts a painter full of his own self-importance straying from his daubing; his muse; and his senses to run off with a fiery feisty woman who ‘plays’ him for her own gain, and he becomes ‘entangled’ in a web of sex and violence while the forlorn woman who loves him pines away.
Although not a ‘risk taker’, here we were treated to deeply moving lyrical dancing from Lauren Cuthbertson as this fabulous ballerina displays a whole range of emotions from flirtatious romance and shock and horror, through to anger, longing, and redemption with stunning virtuosity.
The clever juxtaposition of the troubled couple married to the allegory between the doves and the woman as she tentatively ‘flaps her wings’ like a sobbing child to say ‘I forgive you - let’s start again’ - as the male dove flutters onto the chair to join HIS woman - speaks out the ‘semiology’ of the doves – her beloved has left ‘Pandora’s box’ – and the doves bring HOPE!
When you play this at your ‘ballet evenings’, prepare to be deeply moved.
But wait – if you are a fan of Rachmaninoff’s fabulous masterpieces, have you ever thought ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to hear Rachmaninoff playing his masterworks in astonishing high fidelity?’
Well I have a wonderful little surprise for you, because it IS possible to hear Sergei performing on a concert grand piano - with FULL frequency response and FULL dynamic range – and not only Rachmaninoff – it is also possible to hear Grieg; Strauss; Saint-Saens; Prokofiev; Scriabin; Mahler; Bartok; Stravinsky; Bizet; Granados; Debussy; Faure; Arrau; Serkin; Paderewski; Horowitz; Popper; Hoffman; Gershwin; Granger; Landowska; Zeisler; Rubenstein and Hess (amongst others).
‘Goodness – that can’t possibly be true?’ I hear you whisper - and you are right to question the validity of my bold statement – so although we have only just met, as your curiosity is aroused – and so that we may get to know each other a little better - I shall explain how this IS possible.
In 1904 – 50 years before we could electronically capture sound in high fidelity - the German company Welte Mignon made an astonishing leap in technology and invented the world’s first ‘reproducing piano’ – a piano that shocked the world because through mechanised DIGITAL decoding (yes really), THIS piano was capable of playing classical music with FULL expression - capturing the full dynamic range of the captured performance – including independent operation of the ‘sustain’ and ‘soft’ pedals - all faithfully and accurately ‘recorded’ on a paper ‘music roll’ by the ‘greats’ of the era, so as to facilitate playback of every tonal expression, which is so important to beautiful piano playing.
This amazing piano had astonishing control of articulation and dynamics – so much so that European composers from ‘The golden age’ who were keen to leave a timeless legacy of their talent and virtuosity flocked to Austria and America to make ‘reproducing piano’ ‘music roll’ recordings - and before you could say ‘Benno Moiseiwitsch’ reproducing pianos began to grace the homes of high society – the most notable of these remarkable instruments being the ‘Ampico’ (1911); and the ‘Duo-Art’ (1914) – both favoured by ‘Steinway and sons’.
In 1917 the ‘October Revolution’ led by Lenin and Trotsky – based upon the principles of Karl Marx - took place in Russia on the 7th of November 1917.
When Lenin revealed that Russia could only become a ‘utopian state’ through ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’ - which led to civil war and the formation of a repressive Soviet state under Joseph Stalin - it prompted Rachmaninov (and others) to flee their beloved country for America.
Now as luck would have it, the American Piano Company had just released their ‘Ampico B’ reproducing piano – and Rachmaninov was approached to ‘record’ ‘music rolls’ to promote this uncanny instrument – an instrument of formidable beauty capable of reproducing every accent; every nuance; every shade; every crescendo; and every diminuendo from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo.
Now - thanks to the astonishing efforts of Telarc’s technical team married to the marvels of Telarc’s world-acclaimed digital recording technology, Telarc have released stunning ‘master roll’ recordings of Rachmaninoff on two CDs - ‘A window in time – Rachmaninoff performs his solo piano works’ (CD 80489) and ‘A window in time – Rachmaninoff performs Bach, Chopin, Mendelssohn and others’ (CD 80491) so you can now hear, experience, and enjoy the virtuosity of Rachmaninoff as he delivers ‘live’ performances on a Bosendorfer Imperial Grand Piano fitted with an ‘Ampico’ reproducing piano expression system.
The subtleties and ‘inner detail’ of Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso performances on the ‘reproducing piano’ ‘master rolls’ are revealed with astonishing clarity – including his big ‘power chords’; his sparkling glissandos; and his celebrated ‘bird trills’ that really do impersonate the trill of a thrush.
What this means is that instead of hearing archaic recordings of Rachmaninoff; recorded on primitive recording equipment with mediocre sound-capture and playback capability, what you hear is an ‘acoustical recreation’ of a virtuoso performance played as it should be heard, on a REAL piano at an astonishing level of fidelity – each and every time you play these remarkable CDs.
To quote Mahler “The reproducing piano reproduces the living soul of the artist and has not an equal”.
Gasp in awe - you really ARE listening to Rachmaninoff playing the piano – recorded almost a century ago.
On the ‘Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff’ CD you will hear Rachmaninoff play his world-renowned ‘Prelude in C sharp minor’; his beautiful ‘Melodie in E major’; his fabulous ‘Prelude in G minor’; and his balletic tone poem ‘Lilacs’, plus many more of his compositions.
And if that is not joy enough, on the second CD you will hear and experience Rachmaninoff performing two wonderful pieces by Fritz Kriesler as well as Beethoven’s ‘Turkish March’ – which he plays with the vim and gusto Rachmaninoff is renowned for – and then have a box of tissues on standby as you hear the great man play Gluck’s ‘Melodie dell Orfio’ from Orpheus.
Other gems include Rachmaninoff playfully ‘snagging the thread’ as he plays Mendelssohn’s ‘Spinning Song’ prior to giving a wonderful interpretation of Chopin’s ‘Waltz in E flat major’ from the ballet ‘Chopiniana’ (the very first ‘romantic’ ballet – a ‘ballet of mood’ which depicts how a woman rejected by a poet as he chooses between two women, conquers her emotions – now available fully restored on ‘Kirov Classics’ BluRay) – and get those tissues out again as you listen to Rachmaninoff play Rubenstein’s ‘Barcarole’.
No surface noise – no distortion – no ‘tinniness’ - no ‘cramping’ of the dynamics - no abrupt endings – just shear bliss as you listen to the master play on one of the most remarkable inventions of the 20th century – the ‘reproducing piano’ (be warned – its very addictive).
Hearing is BELIEVING!
Dal Segno records have painstakingly created a remarkable comprehensive catalogue of reproducing piano music rolls and they have released two special ‘samplers’ from their extensive catalogue to encourage our children to appreciate timeless compositions performed by virtuoso performers. These are ‘Music for babies’ (DSPRCD027) and ‘Music for children’ (DSPRCD028).
Although they are not recorded from ‘master rolls’ (which are incredible – as you will hear on the Telarc recordings), every care has been taken to source the best rolls available in the public domain - and both CDs are truly magical (the ROH shop may stock them).
Smile and dance as you listen to Percy Granger playing melodies from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’; dream (or dance) in wistful reverie as you listen to Claude Debussy play ‘The girl with the flaxen hair’; sing along with gusto as George Gershwin plays ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ to lift the spirits and gladden the heart; or join Strauss and chillax as you are carried on an epic boat journey that takes you right across Europe as Joseph Lhevinne plays Straus’s wonderfully celebrated ‘mind picture’ ‘On the beautiful blue Danube’.
And if you wish to go the extra mile, treat yourself or a loved one to ‘Kirov Classics’ on BluRay or DVD (available from the ROH shop). Here you will find the ballet ‘Chopiniana’ faithfully restored in full colour which contains Chopin’s fabulous ‘A major prelude’ and concludes with his celebrated ‘Waltz in E flat major’ (Grand Valse Brilliante).
What with all of that and this fabulous ‘must-own’ BluRay of Frederick Ashton’s visionary choreography – performed by the best artists in the world - it doesn’t get much better!