Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde (1923), the first jazz ballet, still packs a terrific whallop after 80-plus years. Its storyline, which involves a stage full of plantain leaves that rise up into Afro-American dancers who eventually break into tribal and ritual dances of fertility, made enough of an impact on author Ralph Ellison so as to find several allusions in his epic novel, Invisible Man. The RCA recording of La Creation du Monde with Charles Munch derives from a 1961 4-track prerecorded tape, and it features absolutely bravura playing from the BSO principals, not the least of whom is trumpet soloist Roger Voisin. The wowsy-blues timbres of the Cotton Club and various Harlem venues–also Billy Arnold’s American Jazz Novelty Band in London–infiltrate every bar of this energetic score, cross-fertilized by Milhaud’s ubiquitous penchant for Brazilian rhythms and folk influences. The Dance of Desire and Fugue near the work’s conclusion proves a rousing, multi-dimensional sound-byte, worthy of any audiophile’s attentions. The sonic separation on my copy included wonderful snare and percussion effects from the right speaker, while the mid-range of woodwinds and dark strings captures the Henri Rousseau idea of a jungle whose primitive eyes are peering back into you.
Khamma (1911), as performed by Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra, comes from 1963 Decca warm-sounding 4-track tape. Debussy was fascinated by Egyptology; and when Maud Allan commissioned a ballet for her use, Debussy–in serious debt and about to tie himself in legal knots with this ill-advised contract–accepted, originally entitling the project Isis–a Ballet-Pantomime in Three Scenes. Typical of Debussy’s theater work after 1910, the influence of young Stravinsky can be felt in the scoring, maybe even touches of Koechlin that likewise affect the ballet Jeux. Without a guiding program to follow, the music emerges as a pastiche of brilliant colors, metric anomalies, and fluttering energies. A hazy crème-colored gloss immerses the whole, and this veil of sound insinuates itself into the opening of the competition-piece Rhapsody for Clarinet, with its own debts to Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The staccato, tripping motif that eventually dominates the latter part of the piece has a triangle by the side of the clarinet, while dreamy strings–over horn pedals–nasally waft into the blue ionosphere. Both Khamma and the Rhapsodie benefit from Ansermet’s directly palpable sensuality, projected in shimmering terms right through the high note that abruptly ends the Rhapsodie’s dernier-cri. (The liner notes deal only with Milhaud, with no acknowledgement of the clarinet soloist.)
[Again, if you have 96K/24-bit DVD playback on a deck, by all means get the DVD version for more than double the resolution of the CD…Ed.]
— Gary Lemco