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Berners: Ballet Music - Les Sirenes; Cupid & Psyche Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Gavin Sutherland, Members Of The Rte Chamber Choir, Rte Sinfonietta, David Ll

Berners: Ballet Music - Les Sirenes; Cupid & Psyche Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Gavin Sutherland, Members Of The Rte Chamber Choir, Rte Sinfonietta, David Ll

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Lord Berners excelled in the ballet medium where he enjoyed collaborations with leading choreographers and conductors with whom his natural flair for spectacle and design could be explored to the full. In 1946 he wrote Les Sirènes, set on a French beach in 1904 with an exotic cast – the music is atmospheric, graceful and full of allusions to other composers. Cupid and Psyche was not a critical success but its music transcended weaknesses in the scenario and the suite is both orchestrally deft and thematically memorable.


Lord Berners, otherwise Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, as well as being an eccentric English aristocrat was also a composer of some significance, respected by Stravinsky and commissioned by Diaghilev while he was only a student. His particular interests settled on ballet, which had increased greatly in importance thanks to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Although Diaghilev died in 1929 and his company with him, successors took up the cause in Britain and a number of composers of the time wrote for the ballet. These included Vaughan Williams and Walton as well as Constant Lambert, who was a friend of Berners and may have helped him with aspects of his works.

Here we have the last two of Berners’ five ballets, preceded by the elegant Fanfare he wrote for the St Cecilia’s Day concert in 1931 in aid of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. This is his shortest piece. Then we have the whole of his ballet Les Sirènes. The original sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors onto rocks with their singing. They have been represented as human-headed birds and also as mermaids. For this ballet, Berners drew on Moths, a novel by Ouida about a woman forced into a loveless marriage to a domestic abuser. Berners’ choreographer, Frederick Ashton, also introduced seagulls into the story. The result is a complicated plot, set out at length in the booklet. The music consists of ten numbers, written with Berners’ usual verve and charm, and involving a good deal of quotation and pastiche. The opening is like Fauré, there is a Tchaikovskian waltz, a Chopinesque mazurka, a bit of Spanishry, some cod Orientalism and so on. The whole thing is a light-hearted romp. However, a work which would have been enjoyed in the 1920s was out of touch with the mood of the times in 1946 and it was not revived after its initial run.

Cupid and Psyche was an earlier work, first given just before the Second World War when it was even more of a flop. This is a shame because it is based on the wonderful story of Cupid and Psyche from the novel The Golden Ass by the Roman writer Apuleius. It may be a retold folk tale or it may be Apuleius’ own invention. However, the adaptation for the ballet was in some ways inept: it was obviously not sensible at the time to present the god Jupiter as a fascist leader with a Mussolini salute. Berners rescued seven numbers as a suite, which is what we have here. It is similar to Les Sirènes but is generally a weaker score. There is a touch of melancholy, appropriate to the subject, and the ghost of Ravel, specifically his Daphnis and Chloé, hovers at some distance behind the work.

The performances here are cheerful and effervescent, light in touch but also precise. In Les Sirènes there is a wordless mezzo-soprano in two numbers and a wordless chorus in three, nicely done by the singers listed. This recording was first issued with a slightly different coupling on the Marco Polo label in 1995. With this Naxos reissue I believe that all of Berners’ small output is now available. I am sure he would have been surprised; I hope he would have been pleased.

--MusicWeb International (Stephen Barber)


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