I wasn't sure what to expect with this release. Neeme Jarvi can sometimes be too extrovert, too brash even, and almost certainly in too much of a hurry in ballet music. I was so put off with his 2014 complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (Bergen Phil/Chandos), I've avoided many of his subsequent releases. However, I'm really glad I gave him a chance with this Delibes. Because it's quite splendid.
The suites from the two famous ballets, Sylvia and Coppelia (lasting 23' and 30' respectively), are compiled by Mr. Jarvi himself. And they work beautifully. The music appears in chronological order and contains a perfect combination of the most famous bits along with some less-often heard segments as well. Variety is a key attribute, allowing one to listen with new ears (well, almost).
But the highlight of the disc is surely the half-hour suite from the less-well-known, earlier ballet, Spring (La Source). This music is taken entirely from Act II, and it is some of the freshest inspiration from this composer.
Jarvi and his Royal Scottish National Orchestra play with the utmost refinement and bravura. Yet, Jarvi sounds distinctly mellow in this music. "Mellow" is perhaps too strong a word (although it is the word which first comes to mind). Musical is surely a better choice. He takes his time, allowing his players to create musical phrases throughout, without rushing through. Dynamic contrasts are also musical - without any unnatural forte/subito-piano/crescendo jolts, which marred much of his Tchaikovsky. Nor is there any hint of brashness to be heard. It all sounds utterly natural.
However, don't surmise this equates to drowsy, lazy music-making. Neeme Jarvi still has a rare gift of bringing music to life, which he does so here, aided by perfectly chosen tempos. And the playing is alert and energetic all through. Not for a moment does this orchestra sound like it's on autopilot. Jarvi keeps them on their toes at all times. Everywhere, there a sense of spontaneity and the spirit of the dance. It's just not overdone. It's not too fast; it's not frenetic. And mercifully, Jarvi doesn't sound like he's in a big hurry to get it over with - which is EXACTLY how I describe his aforementioned Nutcracker.
I am happy to see this release receive the multi-channel SACD treatment from the folks at Chandos. However, I am less than happy with the overly plush, rich sound, which lacks some sparkle. I hear this exact same soundworld from another recent Chandos SACD - the Respighi trilogy from John Wilson. I just think Chandos gets too much richness in the midrange, robbing the music of some excitement and sparkle.
And that is not always the sound Chandos achieves, though. Immediately after this one, I listened to another recent Chandos SACD, Volume 4 in Wilson's ongoing Richard Rodney Bennett series with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Here the sound is instantly fresher - more open, less dark, and with an airier acoustic. And it simply brings the music to life in a way it doesn't quite on the other two discs. Going back to the Delibes, it sounds slightly muffled and compressed in comparison. However, not disastrously so. Far from it. Jarvi ensures it has plenty of life to it, with convincing dynamic contrasts. Once the ear adjusts, it is very pleasant - but falling just short of thrilling.
Despite my quibbles with the sound, this is an absolutely splendid collection of ballet music, gloriously brought to life by Neeme Jarvi, and played with the utmost accomplishment. It is not to be missed.