Monday 18 March 2013

A delightful disc - Joby Talbot: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Joby Talbot and Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland represented a number of firsts; it was the first full length ballet and the first full-length narrative ballet score commissioned by the Royal Ballet in almost 20 years. It was also Talbot's first full length narrative ballet score, though he and Wheeldon had previous collaborated on the one act ballet Fool's ParadiseAlice's Adventures in Wonderland was a great success, being a co-production with the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. Wheeldon and Talbot are now collaborating on a new full length ballet based on Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. On this disc we have Talbot's Suite from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Fool's Paradise performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Austin. Austin is Talbot's long-term collaborator and assisted Talbot on the orchestrations for Alice.

In the CD booklet, Talbot describes how he had assumed that his experience of scoring music for films would stand him in good stead for writing a full-length narrative ballet. But that this was not the case, that in film the majority of the music lies in the background, whereas in ballet the music is in the foreground. For narrative ballet, Talbot says 'Narrative ballet is made up of small set pieces that have to concern themselves with illogical, unmusical considerations. You have to fool people into thinking that all these minaitures are joined together'. On this disc, Talbot's suite takes eight of these and turns them into the varied movements of the suite. These are the Prologue which covers Alice in the rectory garden, The Mad Hatter's Tea-Party, Alice Alone, The Croquet Match, Setting Up the Courtroom, The Queen of Hearts' Tango, The Cheshire Cat and The Flower Garden (which is in two parts and eventually takes is back from Wonderland to the Rectory garden).

Talbot's score calls for a large amount of tuned percussion, which gives the piece its distinctive atmosphere full of exotic fantasy. Much of the music is period in style with evocations of 19th and 20th century popular music but filtered through Talbot's own imagination. The score is constructed very much as a patch-work with fragments of melody which emerge, coalesce and then break up. There are catchy rhythmic undertones which are often there but never take over, and some great tunes developing.

The Prologue features a constant, rather magical tick-tock which infectiously draws you into the music.  The tick-tock leads us from the Prologue through to The Mad Hatter's Tea-Party which has a nicely catchy underlying rhythm. There is a certain period feel to the orchestration here which is rather 30's, with its use of saxophones.  

The tuned percussion come to the fore at the opening of Alice Alone, which is slow and develops into a lovely wistful tune, before blossoming into something more moving, backed up by some lovely orchestration. The Croquet Match is nicely pointed rhythmically and again rather catchy. The fragments of melody developing in an amusing way, especially when the dramatic chaos develops. 

Setting Up the Courtroom is again rather catchy with some wonderfully toe-tapping bits. There is quite a clear dramatic narrative which is rather filmic in many ways. The Queen of Hearts' Tango starts as a great violin solo against some strikingly sparse orchestration. 

Here we come up against something which was a feature of the full ballet, that the character of the Queen of Hearts and her cohorts were all amusing without that touch of the sinister which can be read into Lewis Carroll's original. This was obviously a deliberate artistic decision, and Talbot's score obviously reflects the choreographer's desires in this area

The Cheshire Cat features some lovely evanescent and exotic textures in the orchestra. Finally, the two part Flower Garden takes us from the flower garden in Wonderland eventually back to the Rectory garden. It is a lovely set piece, with a rather circus/carnival like waltz at first before the fantasy drifts away as we return to real life.

I have seen, and enjoyed, the full ballet but when listening to this score I tried to put that out of my mind and concentrate on the music here. Talbot has created a rather charming and striking suite, full of lovely music, gorgeous textures and catchy rhythms. 

The accompany work is the complete Fool's Paradise. This started out as a piano trio The Dying Swan which was commissioned by the British Film Institute in 2002 as a new score for the 1917 silent film by Russian directory Evgenii Bauer. This was turned into Fools Paradise for string orchestra; the ballet was premiered by Wheeldon's Morphoses dance company at Sadler's Wells Theatre in September 2007.

Fool's Paradise starts as a rather wistful little piece, haunting and evocative but develops into more dramatic areas. The music features what Talbot calls 'creaky Edwardian tea dance music, but developed in a very modern way with arithmetical games'. The CD booklet provides a plot summary for  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland but none for Fool's Paradise so we must make our own story.

Performances from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Austin are admirable with some fine solo playing and a dazzling array of tuned percussion (5 percussionists, timpani, piano and celeste). For Fool's Paradise Talbot himself plays the solo piano part.

This is a delightful disc. Many will want it as a memory of the full ballet, but Talbot's score works wonderfully on its own. Not every ballet score makes great music when divorced from the stage, but Talbot's music has a good chance of its life of its own. A great crowd pleaser which also displays a strong musical intelligence.

Joby Talbot (born 1971) - Suite from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (2011)  [39.36]
Joby Talbot (born 1971) - Fool's Paradise (2007) [27.47]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Christopher Austin (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood All, London, 10-12 November 2012
SIGNUM SIGCD327 1CD [67.12]

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