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Last September I reviewed the first re-issue by Naxos (formerly on the Marco Polo label) of Lord Berners' ballet The Triumph of Neptune. Fast on the heels of that first undertaking I now find myself faced with another Berners reissue, this time focusing on two other stage-works by this most enigmatic of British composers.
A Wedding Bouquet is undoubtedly one of Berners' most original and successful works. Some might say unique, since choral ballets are rare indeed. The premiere took place at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 27 April 1937 with Constant Lambert conducting. It was Berners' own idea to create the work, even though at first he had intended it as a choral concert-piece, basing it on the opening pages of Gertrude Stein's play They must be wedded to their Wife of 1931. From 1941 onwards, initially because of wartime restrictions, the chorus was replaced by a speaker at the side of the stage, but there is little doubt that Berners' idea of a sung text by a small group of singers is by far the best one.
The ballet features a French provincial wedding at the beginning of the twentieth century. The central character is the slightly demented Julia, who in bygone days has been ruined by the rakish Bridegroom, and is now an embarrassment to him. After the festivities are over, she is left disconsolate, with only her dog to comfort her. The ballet was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, who together with Berners, were responsible for the music, stage décor and costumes.
Listen — Berners: Allegro Brilliant (A Wedding Bouquet)
(track 1, 2:32-3:29) ℗ 1996 Naxos Rights US Inc :
The words explained the characters, the action, made utterly irrelevant comments, worked themselves into a frenzied rhythmical accompaniment or injected an occasional apt phrase that devastated dancers and audience alike. Not all the words are intelligible, but gradually the audience got to know certain phrases by heart, and the ballet has a devoted public. Others abhor the whole affair and think it an absurd waste of time and talent. A Wedding Bouquet is indeed a connoisseur's piece, but if you love novelty, there is no reason to hold you back from investigating this piece full of vivacity, festive brilliance and pathos.
Listen — Berners: Tempo di Tango (A Wedding Bouquet)
(track 4, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 1996 Naxos Rights US Inc :
Luna Park, a fantastic ballet in one act, was commissioned for C B Cochran's London revue of 1930, and first performed at the London Pavilion in March of that year, with choreography by George Balanchine.
Set in a freak pavilion in Luna Park, a showman raises the curtain behind which are four niches. No 1 reveals a man with three heads; No 2 a three-legged juggler with billiard balls; No 3 a one-legged ballerina is posing and No 4 a man with six arms. All the freaks dance and bow to the audience, after which the showman turns down the lights as he leaves the stage. Just as he is gone, the four performers appear from behind the curtain, revealing themselves as normal people.
Everything was a fake. The four proceed to dance their individual variation as they all decide to leave the circus and go out into the world. When the showman returns for a second performance, he only finds the fake body pieces. He is humiliated and shouted at by the audience. The ballet ends with the showman leaping into one of the niches just as he brings the curtain down. Berners produced a succinct score that matched the action, and gave distinct characterization to each of the characters.
Listen — Berners: Variation (Serge Lifar) (Luna Park)
(track 9, 0:47-1:07) ℗ 1996 Naxos Rights US Inc :
Despite the work having shades of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Stravinsky's Scenes de Ballet, the ballet has been rather neglected.
These ballets are both short in duration, have some exquisite melodies, particularly A Wedding Bouquet, and are superbly crafted, but A Wedding Bouquet is definitely the composer's masterpiece.
Luna Park, on the other hand, is more conventional, but it still has a joyous aura that creates a festive atmosphere of a dance floor.
Listen — Berners: Coda (Luna Park)
(track 10, 1:37-2:25) ℗ 1996 Naxos Rights US Inc :
The late Kenneth Alwyn (1925-2020) conducts these works with aplomb, and his players respond with some sparkling interpretations full of bouncy vigour and rhythmic intensity.
This is a most welcome re-issue, which also includes a ninety-second march arranged by Philip Lane, in excellent sound quality (despite its 1994 recording age) and detailed annotations. Welcome back Lord Berners.
Copyright © 22 October 2021