Sunday, 20 January 2013

"Before his regretted decline as a composer"

Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version)

Russian Ballet Orchestra conducted by Henri Defosse

Edison Bell  X503 & X504
(1650-1, 1651-1, 1652-1, 1653-1 & 1653-2)
(recorded early June 1927)

5 Flac files in one RAR File, Here at Mediafire. [about 63Mb]

I have included two takes of the last side: the first take has a couple of fluffs and was probably never intended to be issued, but thought it would be worthwhile including. As the work is supposed to last something around 35 minutes it means at least 20 minutes of the music has had to be edited out of this recording. 

The conductor Henri Defosse pops up now and again on records but it is very difficult to get any good idea of his career. His full name was Émile-Henri-J.-B. Defosse and he was born at Nogent-sur-Seine, France, on the 28th March 1883 and died in 1956. He was apparently Diaghilev favourite conductor, they appear to have always been in agreement on interpretation – I have not been able to gather if this means that Defosse was under the thumb of the great Russian impresario, and knew where his pay cheque came from.

Henri Defosse in 1919
Defosse was a pupil of Gabriel Faure and had composed a number of piano pieces before the Great War. From 1918, and probably before then, he gave classes on conducting at the Paris Conservatoire. Also at this time Guillaume Apollinaire had written an opera bouffe Casanova for Defosse who had begun to write music for the first act before Apollinaire's death from Spanish flu in 1918. In the 1940s Poulenc considered setting the libretto too but this also came to nothing.

Defosse conducted the Russian Ballet at the London Coloseum Theatre in 1918 and the following year when the Diaghilev company was performing at the Alhambra Theatre. Defosse together with Ernest Ansermet  were the two music directors for the company, towards the end of the season the young Adrian Boult took over Ansermet's duties, also in this season Defosse conducted the world premier of Rossini/Respighi La boutique fantastique on 5 June 1919. Throughout the 1920s Defosse continued to conduct for the Russian Ballet with other work coming from his being one of the conductors at the Paris Opera. His name appears more often in the late 1920s and early 30s as a house conductor on Odeon records and later the Columbia label, mainly to conduct the accompaniment to several operatic records. Defosse really fades from sight from the mid 1930s although he pops up again in 1944 as the director of the Algiers Conservatoire and conductor of a number of concerts broadcast on Radio France. Possibly he had fled France for political reasons but this is speculation. He is given passing reference in various books on Diaghilev but I have drawn a blank on any detailed information - I would be interested to know more of his career.

The records were made during the Russian Ballet's 1927 London season that opened on the Saturday 11th of June at the Prince's Theatre [now Shaftesbury Theatre], the company having closed in Paris two days earlier on Thursday 9th at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt. Eugene Goossens is known to have already started to rehearse three ballets in London on the Thursday as the Paris end of things was still closing down – this begs the question of who exactly made up the Russian Ballet Orchestra, possibly it was composed of a core group of players who travelled to London to be augmented by local talent, thus leaving Paris to fend as best it could on the final performances there. This logistical feat did not quite come off for although Petrouska and Henri Sauguet's new ballet La Chatte were announced to be given on the opening night the Sauguet had to be postponed due to the costumes being stopped at customs over arguments about silk duty! Other novelties of the London season included Milhaud's Train Bleu, Lord Berners's Triumph of Neptune and Prokofiev's Le Pas d'Acier

Rumours that the Prokofiev piece was Bolshevist propaganda had Diaghilev seated next to the first flautist with a revolver threatening to fire it at the first sign of demonstration - the audience loved it however and Diaghilev left the pit more than ever perplexed by the unpredictable British public. It must have been something of a crush in the orchestra as the pit was much too small and some of the brass players had to be seated with the audience. Goossens seems to have conducted the season but having fallen ill Malcolm Sergent stepped in midway through the run.
Prince's theatre showing the tiny pit

The recording dates of Edison Bell records have yet to be adequately pinned down, the first mention of the records I can find is in the July issue of The Gramophone.

'Edison Bell Specials. - Welcome to a new issue by a great house. These records will be of high class music, played by expensive performing units, but the prices are to be only 3s. and 4s. 6d. for the 10in. and 12in. records respectively. The first list comprises two 10in. and six 12in., entirely of modern Ballet Music, played by the orchestra of the Russian Ballet, under M. Deffosse [sic]. The 10in. pair of discs is of The Three Cornered Hat, and then there is a 12in. pair of discs each of The Fire Bird, ***Petrouska and Prince Igor. The recording is exceptionally good, the harp and timpani always being convincing.' [New Poor Records The Gramophone June 1927 p. 66 - the periodical used a three star grading system at this time for popular and cheap records]

Clearly the reviewer had heard the recordings, probably as advanced pressings. To take into account the time to process these discs they would have had to have been recorded, at the very least, early in June. Defosse may have come with an advanced party on or before the 9th-11th of June to rehearse in London before Goossens took over. The fact is we just don't know, but these dates would make it feasible to have sample records pressed in time for the July issue of the magazine. As these recordings were to be the first issues in Edison Bell's new Electron series it makes sense that the recording sessions had been prearranged. Goossens and Sargent in any case conducted for HMV so could not have made these records for Edison Bell even if they wanted to.

The Gramophone gave a full review in September 1927

'More cheap records. This is a welcome enterprise of Edison Bell. The best of the Russian Ballet‘s products are extremely fine, though it does throw in some of the feeblest stuff of modern times-which is duly applauded, of course, by the new shrieking sisterhood and brotherhood of the gods, avid of sensation at any price. No one need fear to buy these records, as far as the quality of the music is concerned. Before his regretted decline as a composer, Stravinsky had happily given us two or three pieces of very fine art, and some of the most attractive portions of these are included on the records. (Why their French titles) I believe the Edison Bell people were very early on the scene with some Stravinsky and Borodin. The new electrical records give excellent volume without harshness. To get the full sonority of, say, the beginning of the Danze Finale of the de Falla, without offending the ear at fairly close range, is an agreeable achievement. The characteristics of the instruments are not, it seems to me, quite as sharply differentiated as I should like. The music hangs together well, but the orchestration loses something of its piquancy. The tone at the end of The Fire Bird is not perfectly sweet, but the blend and proportion is good, save in odd corners, where possibly some acoustic property of the place of recording (it is presumably not a theatre) has its effect on the result. Petrouchka I like especially. The amount of tone from a full concert room orchestra is sometimes overwhelming. Here it is moderate, but sufficient, and the instrumental quality has a better chance to come through the mass than in some of the other discs. The hurdy-gurdy imitation, rather curiously, is less life-like than usual. The piano comes out particularly well in this record. I have put 503 and 504 together, and 505 and 506, but of course any record can be had separately, since the story is episodic in Petrouchka, and the dances in Prince Igor can be taken in any desired dose; but I think you will want to get these four, and probably most of the others also. You should get the pamphlet of descriptive notes given with the series, by the way. [Gramophone September 1927 p. 147]

The most interesting facet of this recording is that it is as near the sound of a Diaghilev production as we are likely to get. The orchestra may not have been the best, and the conductor may not have been of the first rank but that is not what matters. What I believe does matter is what it could have been like in 1927 to attend the Diaghilev Russian Ballet.

Alexandre Benois set design for Petrushka 1911 
What marked this 1927 London season out, and also makes the recording still more interesting, is the arrival of Stravinky late in June to conduct his own works at the Prince's Theatre.

'Stravinsky conducts The Russian Ballet'  Did I, or did I not witness a horrid little scene on the stage last Monday two of our special favourites (no name no pack-drill) squabbling in full limelight over their claims to it, while acknowledging our delight in Pulcinella I'm afraid I did. Anyway, it was understandable and I mention it only to show what a state of excitement we were all in. It was really Stravinsky's fault. he had come over, taken up the baton for the evening, and in the most businesslike but least showy manner, electrified three of his popular ballets. You should have seen how Petroushka pulled himself together, how radiant was Pulcinella: what raptures animated The Fire Bird. It was as though father himself had paid a purposeful visit to the nursery. Every dancer from A to Z was on the tiptoe of form, and the evening in the happier sense of the term was a spanking one. Like some of his old admirers, Petroushka has suffered many vicissitudes. We have been in and out of love with him. This performance revived old raptures. The drummed-up vision of the Old Showman, cloud-enthroned among the stars; the hurdy-gurdy dancer who recalls Heine's Mademoiselle Lawrence; the ostler of the fair, and the puppet tragedy leading to Petroushka's marrow-freezing apotheosis, had never seemed ore charming. Puncinella too, that fickle fantasy by Stravinsky out of Pergolesi, with its blanched decor, choral exclamations, and artful puerilities, was delight itself. Then came The Fire Bird with Danilova and all the dancers on their mettle, to say nothing of the presence oft he King of Spain to intensify the atmosphere that so patently exhilarates these temperamental artists. It was such an evening as might have graced the triumphs of the past. H.H.' [Observer July 3 1927]

I take this ecstatic review with a pinch of salt, I think the orchestra playing was probably well up to the mark even before Stravinsky arrived but needless to say, had the reviewer heard the preceding performances in which to compare Stravinsky's own?  – yet more uncertainty. Did Diaghilev and Stravinsky have a row on stage, or was it Goossens? Are we hearing only a perfunctory everyday performance? I would like to think it is better than that. 


  1. Thanks so much, Jolyon, I've been looking forward to hearing this for ages! Fascinating post and great transfers - I'm enjoying these highly enjoyable and instructive records records in July-like heat, while you must be in Petersburg Shrovetide Fair weather? The Gramophone reviewers, if you don't mind me adding this detail, were Capt. Harry T. Barnett (author of the 'New-Poor Page') and W.R. Anderson. Has anyone got the descriptive pamphlet that Anderson mentioned? And does anyone know who H.H. was? Very best wishes from the antipodes, Grumpy

  2. Yes -- thanks for this fascinating slice of history and your excellent transfer. While the execution is often haphazard and it seems rather bland as an interpretation compared to our concert-hall and recording expectations, it does remind us that ballets use pit orchestras (or perhaps used to) and that the work was intended to accompany dancers who require relatively steady rhythm and would be upset by impulsive musical surprises. (Incidentally, it seems that sides 1 and 2 may be mislabelled, as side 2 begins with the opening of the ballet.) Thanks once again for this, your past postings, and all the great stuff that must lie ahead!

  3. Dear Peter

    I think it was all quite slapdash on the day and as you say Defosse may have been liked by Diaghilev precisely because he was supportive of the dancers and was not wilfully interpreting the music with disregad to the ballet. Maybe this is why the review was quite possitive and further the review for the Fire-Bird was still to some measure preferred to other version in a review in the gramophone of 1930. What the reviewer heard was what they experienced in the theatre. I have that Defosse Fire-Bird and will make a transfer of it soon

    Bast wishes


  4. I think this is the best version of this piece I've ever heard. I'm hearing instruments I've never heard before, colors and rhythms seem so right . So simple and alive. Really very beautiful. I will play this for the rest of my life. Thanks so much

  5. I'm glad you like this performance - somewhat cut down but still it probably has the essence of sound that Diaghilev, Stravinsky and the public of his time heard. Also it is somewhat cruder and less sophisticated but with an immediacy not easily found today.

    All great works I suppose eventually become standard piece of repertoire and this familiarity rubs the edges off them. I am not sure if this makes any performance better or worse, only different as each generation makes its own interpretive judgements. Over time these differences can be very marked indeed and can as a result be thrilling as if 'hearing' the piece as new.

    Best wishes