Artistic project – summary

François-Xavier Roth revives the unique sound of the original orchestra of Les Ballets Russes, which premiered The Firebird and Les Orientales, on this new release, recorded live with his orchestra Les Siècles during 2010.

Sergei Diaghliev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes created ground-breaking collaborations between contemporary choreographers, composers, artists and dancers in the early 20th century. Diaghilev’s commission for a ballet after the Russian fairy tale of The Firebird went to the relatively unknown 27-year old Igor Stravinsky who completed the score in just four months. The finished production, with choreography by Fokine, was premiered with great success alongside Les Orientales with Gabriel Pierné conducting the orchestra at the Opéra de Paris on 25 June 1910.

To celebrate the centenary of Les Ballets Russes, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles gave a series of performances at Cité de la Musique in Paris and in Aix en Provence of a programme including Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances and Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheheredzade. Roth commissioned new orchestrations of two of the dances for Les Orientales – the originals having been lost: Bruno Mantovani for Puck from the Grieg Lyric Pieces Op 71 No 3 (orchestrated by Stravinsky for the premiere) and Charlie Piper for Dance Orientale Op 32 No 5 by Sinding.

Sharing François-Xavier Roth’s desire to revive the strong identity of the orchestra which premiered these pieces, the musicians of Les Siècles used original and reproduction instruments by illustrious French manufacturers. “They are extremely resourceful and have sometimes been detectives to track down instruments through other musicians, dealers and even on ebay!” says Roth. For more background to the recording and further information about the instruments please see the accompanying article.

video by François-Xavier Roth (in french)

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Artistic project – complete

Diaghilev, New York, 1916 BnF-BmO

François-Xavier Roth and his Paris-based orchestra Les Siècles embarked on a Ballets Russes odyssey last year to mark the centenary of Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev’s legendary dance company. The sounds of early Stravinsky were also on their agenda, placed there by a shared desire to restore instrumental textures and timbres subsequently shaded by technical modifications and ‘improvements’. Their journey of discovery began with the instruments and playing styles familiar to the orchestra of the Théâtre National de l’Opéra at the time of The Firebird’s premiere there on 25 June 1910. It extended to reach Les Orientales, a seductive blend of dances by Arensky, Borodin, Glazunov, Grieg and Sinding, orchestrated by Stravinsky as a companion piece to The Firebird. In short, Roth and Les Siècles recovered a lost soundworld and set down the captivating results on record.

 Early acoustic recordings of Ballets Russes compositions give little idea of their strikingly wide spectrum of tone colours. Extracts from Stravinsky’s first suite from The Firebird were first recorded in primitive sound by the Beecham Symphony Orchestra under its eponymous conductor in the summer of 1916. More substantial recordings from the first and second suites, made under the direction of Albert Coates and Leopold Stokowski in 1924, were respectively cut to disc in London and Philadelphia, remote from the pre-war world of Parisian orchestral sound. The tonal character of modern orchestras is even more distant from the palette of sounds available to an ensemble of distinctly French instruments not yet affected by technological change and the creep of international standardisation.

 Stravinsky wrote with the particular tonal qualities of narrow bore French trumpets and trombones, the valve horn and piquant woodwind instruments clearly in mind. Today’s instruments may be more reliable and produce greater collective weight of sound but they lack many of the tonal nuances that Ballets Russes audiences experienced. Les Siècles’ musicians retrieved a veritable arsenal of French-built instruments from the 1890s and early 1900s, manufactured by companies regarded among the finest makers of the age. They also employed instruments from later years crafted according to patterns perfected around the fin-de-siècle. The ensemble of sensitively restored instruments included wind and brass trademarked by the great firms of Thibouville-Lamy, Buffet-Crampon, Courtois, Selmer, Besson and, harps by Erard, and a fleet of violins, violas, cellos and double-basses bearing gut strings.

Firebird - 1910 - costume by Léon Bakst

Les Siècles and its Artistic Director devoted long hours to rehearsal before recreating the colour and spirit of Stravinsky’s Ballets Russes scores in concert at the Cité de la musique in Paris last October. The orchestra’s recording label, Les Siècles Live, caught the revelatory results. “I wanted to make a party for the Ballets Russes centenary,” François-Xavier Roth declares. He adds that the achievements of Diaghilev’s troupe in dance, visual art and music appear today as the products of a golden age. “Of course, we would wish to see this remarkable union of creative people again. But society has changed so much in the century since the Ballets Russes was formed. Everything then centred on Diaghilev, from finding money for productions and the freshness of inventing programmes to his company imposing seasons of Russian art in Paris. He was neither a musician nor a dancer: he was a true impresario. We miss having a Diaghilev today.”

1910 - costume by Léon Bakst

In preparing Les Siècles’ L’Odyssée des Ballets Russes, Roth recognised that for all the Russian qualities of the company’s early works and of Diaghilev’s close-knit artistic ‘family’, its best-known scores were brought to life by a French orchestra. “It was a meeting of Russian and French culture that produced something remarkable,” the conductor observes. “French orchestras were the most successful in Europe at the time. It was exciting to recreate this orchestra and rediscover pieces, like Les Orientales, that have not been performed since their creation.” Roth commissioned Bruno Mantovani, recently acclaimed for his opera Akhmatova, and Charlie Piper, winner of the 2006 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize, to provide orchestrations for dances missing from the surviving performing material for Les Orientales. Their idiomatic work effectively bridges the century between the ballet’s premiere and the first modern revival of its music by Les Siècles.

 The orchestra’s Firebird recording contains much more than the full flavour of sound imagined by its 28-year-old composer. It also reminds listeners of the freshness and daring of a ballet score commissioned by Diaghilev from a musician virtually unknown outside St Petersburg at the time of its premiere. The Firebird elevated the Ballets Russes from the status of a visiting Russian company, which made its debut season mark in 1909 with Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, to set it among the leading lights of the French avant-garde. François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles approached The Firebird as if its music had been completed a matter of weeks before they first rehearsed the piece.

 “Every time we perform a work from the past, I believe it should feel like a premiere,” Roth observes. “I am attracted to the idea of performing contemporary music from all periods of history, which is why I aim to understand the gestures of a composer at the time the piece was written and try to express those today. It was always my dream to create an orchestra that could play in a different way to that which we are used to hearing. I wanted to work with a group of players blessed with the skills and experience necessary to use the right instruments for the right music and, of equal importance, to understand the world of each composer and the aesthetic of each piece it performed. Les Siècles, which I believe is quite exceptional in this respect, has allowed this to become reality.”

Costume of Kochtcheï (Golovine) by Léon Bakst

Since its formation in 2003, Les Siècles has applied theories of historically informed performance to the practical business of making music. The orchestra’s musicians have assembled an arsenal of instruments appropriate to the period and place of works created by composers as diverse as Lully, Rameau, Bach, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Under François-Xavier Roth’s direction, Les Siècles regularly employs period instruments for works in a concert’s first half before exchanging them for their modern equivalents to perform music by living composers after the interval.

“What matters above all is that the project excites me as a performer,” says the conductor. “If it does, then it may also excite an audience.” Roth and Les Siècles recently harnessed their enthusiasm to cast fresh light on Offenbach’s Les brigands at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. They did the same for the Ballets Russes version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérezade, complete with narrator, as part of their L’Odyssée des Ballets Russes project last October. The recorded results of Les Siècles’ rediscovery of The Firebird and Les Orientales, meanwhile, amount to essential listening for anyone concerned with the enduring contribution of Diaghilev’s company to the history of art, dance and music.

Nijinsky in Les Orientales

 Last year, visitors to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes exhibition were able to see the enduring legacy left by one of the 20th century’s most potent and enduring creative forces. The exhibits included everything from intimate details of Vaslav Nijinsky’s life and film of Tamara Karsavina, the original ‘Oiseau de feu’, to iconic stage designs by Bakst, Golovin, Goncharova and Picasso. Yet the original sounds of the great ballet scores written for Diaghilev’s dancers, those of Stravinsky’s The Firebird among them, were not on display. Thanks to François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles, listeners worldwide now have the chance to discover the sparkling orchestral tone colours that accompanied Nijinsky and Karsavina on stage at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra a full century and one year ago.

© ANDREW STEWART 2011