Seeing the enticing selection of ballet music on offer here, I couldn't resist this CD from Onyx Classics. Debussy's Jeux is unjustifiably under-represented in the catalog (although it has been gaining favor, with 2 other outstanding recordings recently from Nott/Pentatone and Shui/BIS), and Dukas's La Peri is still downright rare. To have them both, flanking Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane (albeit the 2nd Suite only), is a treasure trove of riches.
The conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, is a new name to me. This momentarily caused me a slight hesitation after my recent experience with a CD from another new name on the podium, Alessandro Crudele with the LPO, who was less than inspiring (or promising) on his Respighi collection for Linn Records. However, I was thrilled to hear that Hindoyan is in another league altogether, and memories of the bland Crudele faded away.
Two observations came immediately to mind as I began listening to Hindoyan's Jeux (Debussy) followed by La Peri (Dukas).
First, this conductor has a natural feel for ballet music. It is superbly dancing, fleet and lifted aloft, making nearly every previous recording of these pieces sound earthbound. And second, his handling of tempos is simply masterful. Over and over, I was pleased to hear no awkward shifts or clunky gear changes, as is so often the case in ballet music. Hindoyan manages the flow of slower sections into faster ones with ease and natural gracefulness. I believe this is accomplished primarily because he never allows the slow passages to sag or become weighed down with too much emotional baggage. Even when the action is relaxed, the music remains vibrant and continues to dance, and thus flows naturally and effortlessly into the faster-moving sections.
A case in point is Debussy's Jeux, which isn't easy to bring off. The constant tempo fluctuations and stop-and-start variations in the action can trip up a less-than-attentive conductor. No such problems here though. This piece perfectly illustrates Hindoyan's skillful command of tempos and his inspirational leadership of this orchestra. And the recorded sound is atmospheric and alluring. This reading is exceptional, comparing favorably to the terrific account from Nott and the more leisurely one from Shui.
Another significant observation brought further gratification: hearing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic playing with such life, fervor and joy. Hindoyan was appointed chief conductor in 2021, replacing Vasily Petrenko (who has moved on to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). And based upon this new recording (his first with the orchestra), Hindoyan has revived this orchestra, infusing it with new levels of vitality and colorful expression. He elicits far more life from this orchestra than Petrenko managed in his recent trio of Stravinsky recordings (also for Onyx), which were well-played but too careful and curiously devoid of Russian spirit. Gone is the fine-toned, homogenous anonymity which he insisted upon - yawn. I am thrilled that the orchestra once again has character.
The Dukas ballet is also expertly done here, dancing along with charm and delight, with attractive forward momentum. And with lovely, silky strings - which is not easy to achieve when Dukas scores them multi-divisi way up in the very highest register, which can thin them out to the point of glassiness if one isn't careful. Not so here.
Only Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane Suite seemed ever so slightly less inspired. But not by much. It is not quite as well recorded either. The acoustic loses a bit of the lovely spaciousness heard in the Debussy and takes on a bit of thickness in climaxes. I was not surprised to learn from the booklet that each of these pieces was recorded at different times - combining live concerts with studio sessions. I suspect the Roussel was recorded in the studio rather than before a live audience, as it doesn't sound quite as spontaneous. However, drama and variety of characterization are highlights, as are Hindoyan's gifts for bringing out interesting inner details, such as some wonderful string glissandi which normally go unnoticed. It's a real pity the 1st Suite wasn't included as well.
What is included, however, is the ubiquitous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy), filling up the disc to a generous 68+ minutes. However, its inclusion here is disappointingly mundane among its adventurous companions. Further, I found the reading to be rather ordinary in comparison with the rest. It would have been infinitely more interesting, rewarding and invaluable to have the entire Bacchus et Ariane ballet instead.
Now to the recorded sound. After the lackluster sound Onyx dutifully produced for Petrenko, I was delighted to hear a more open, spacious and alive-sounding acoustic for much of this program. And more color and sheer power from the orchestra as well. However, it's not the most sumptuous - typical of the Onyx "house sound". But it's noticeably warmer and more dimensional than many of their previous recordings in Liverpool. Most impressive, though, is the clarity of inner details and crisp articulation which this fine conductor revels in. And I was pleased to hear the strings carry the day with somewhat more authority than usual. The brass are placed further back in the soundstage and held in check until those moments of utmost necessity when they burst forth, delivering drama and power aplenty. All the while, their golden tone is absolutely perfect for this music. And in the Fanfare to La Peri, they play with impressive bite and incisive articulation too. Only during the most climactic passages in Bacchus does the acoustic become just a bit claustrophobic.
In sum, this is a fabulous debut recording of a conductor at the helm of his new orchestra. In just one season, he has already fostered a sense of life and musical involvement from this orchestra which I've not heard from them (on record) in a long while. I must reiterate what I wrote at the top in my introduction - this is ballet music! It positively dances and sparkles with vitality from beginning to end. It's nearly impossible to sit still while listening to it.