Sonic Grade: F
Alto records did this title on 180 gram more than a decade ago, and it was a COMPLETE DISASTER. Those of you getting our catalogs in the ’90s when that record came around were warned not to buy it. I was lucky enough to own a very good original pressing of it at the time, which of course made it all too easy to recognize just how poorly the new pressing had been mastered.
No criticisms of the quality of the mastering were offered in the audiophile press however, none that I saw anyway.
And every major audiophile record dealer carried it. Funny how some things never change.
Famous in its Day
The Carmen Ballet Suite was deservedly famous in audiophile circles back in the ’70s. Even with the dubious equipment that a high-end stereo store might be running, this record would still sound shockingly good. It has so much “life” to it, so many interesting colors, and above all such three-dimensional spaciousness, it can make even bad transistor equipment, which is pretty much all there was back then, sound good. (The store I frequented carried the classic tube Audio Research electronics — that’s where I bought mine — but most stores were all transistor, and high-power transistors at that, not a sound I care to revisit. Would love to hear my SP3-A-1 again though.)
Carmen Suite is a one-act ballet written in 1967 by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, based on a libretto and choreographed by Alberto Alonso. The music, taken from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet and arranged for strings and percussion, is not a 19th century pastiche but rather “a creative meeting of the minds,” as Shchedrin put it, with Bizet’s melodies reclothed in a variety of fresh instrumental colors (including the frequent use of percussion), set to new rhythms and often phrased with a great deal of sly wit.
Initially banned by the Soviet hierarchy as “disrespectful” to the opera for precisely these qualities, the ballet has since become Shchedrin’s best-known work and has remained popular in the West as what reviewer James Sanderson of allmusic.com calls “an iconoclastic but highly entertaining retelling of Bizet’s opera.”
The idea for Carmen Suite originated with Shchedrin’s wife, Bolshoi Theater ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. In 1964, she asked composer Dmitri Shostakovich to compose a ballet on the story of Carmen, since, Shchedrin said, they were both on good terms with him. Shostakovich “gently but firmly refused,” Plisetskaya remembers. “I’m afraid of Bizet,” he told her half-jokingly. “Everyone is so used to the opera that whatever you write, you’ll disappoint them.” He suggested that perhaps Shchedrin could “come up with something special” to fulfill her request. Instead, she went to Aram Khachaturian, the composer of the ballets Gayane and Spartacus, but “things never went beyond talking.” Shchedrin added that Khachaturian told Plisetskaya, “Why you need me? You have a composer at home, ask him!” It was then, he said, that she asked him to write the music.
In late 1966, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba stopped in Moscow during its Soviet tour. Pliesetskaya’s mother attended its performances and encouraged her to go. Eventually, Plisetskaya approached the company’s choreographer, Alberto Alonso, and told him of her desire for a Carmen ballet. Alonso developed the libretto and worked with Ballet Nacional dancers on the choreography, then flew to Moscow to teach the work to Plisetskaya. Shchedrin watched her initial rehearsals with Alonso and agreed to write music for the ballet.
However, as much as he struggled to write an original score for this project, Shchedrin found he could not extricate the story from the music that French composer Georges Bizet wrote for his opera of the same name—a score Shchedrin called “fantastic, one of the best in the whole history of music.” Eventually, Shchedrin decided to exploit this connection in what he called “a creative meeting of the minds.” With Shostakovich’s words in mind, Shchedrin said, “I had to combine … something fresh … with these famous melodies.” From this motive came the idea to use just strings and percussion for the instrumentation “because then it is a totally modern combination.” His intent was to give homage to what Bizet had done and acknowledge the universality of his music in telling the story of Carmen while adding his own ideas to the work. In this way, Andrew Lindemann Malone writes in his description of the ballet, Shchedrin positioned him on a creative middle ground, “making himself if not an equal partner at least something above the level of arranger.”
Toward this end, Shchedrin set Bizet’s melodies with a number of clever and unexpected rhythmic twists and subtler changes in notes and chords. This gives the impression of simultaneously recognizing something familiar and being surprised in hearing something slightly distorted about it. Some melodies are “combined for ‘found’ counterpoint,” Malone writes, others interrupted and still more left unaccompanied where Shchedrin assumes the listener knows both music and story all too well. An instance of the last mentioned, Malone writes, is “when a big whipped-up climax in the Torero scene leads to nothing but the lowest percussion, pumping quietly, merrily, and obliviously along.” He also adds a number of humorous touches, such as the off-color use of the Farandole from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne and the sudden, unexpected hesitations in the Toreador Song. None of these changes obfuscate either the general melodic curves of Bizet’s music—all the familiar tunes are easily recognizable—or the intricacies of the plot.
Shchedrin’s orchestration proved equally unexpected and creative. Eschewing the full orchestra of Bizet for one of strings and an enlarged percussion section, he “boldly overhauled” the orchestral sound, as Sanderson phrases it, with a greatly widened timbrel range enhancing the sharpened rhythms and sudden hairpin turns in phrasing and mood. The Habanera, Malone says, is introduced “in a bouncy duet” for vibraphone and tympani, while various percussion instruments accentuate separate notes in the “Changing of the Guard” scene to “unexpectedly rattle” the melodic line.” The full extent of Shchedrin’s emendations and their faithfulness to Bizet and the story, Malone writes, are both shown in the finale of the ballet: “melodies get twisted, thrown to exotic percussion, and otherwise trampled, but the resulting music, with its passionate climax and coda of distant bells and pizzicato strings, still has gravity and depth, due both to Bizet and to Shchedrin’s interventions
A standard string orchestra of violins, violas, cellos, double bases is augmented by a percussion battery of four members, who play the following:
Player 1: marimba, vibraphone, castanets, three cowbells, four bongos, bells, snare drum, guiro
Player 2: vibraphone, marimba, snare drum, tambourine, two woodblocks, claves, triangle, guiro
Player 3: hand bells, crot, maracas, whip, snare drum, choclo, guiro, three tplbl, bass drum, tam-tam, snare drum, triangle
Player 4: cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, hi-hat, triangle, tambourine, tom-tom, timpani
Two factors influenced Shchedrin in choosing this instrumentation. The first, he said in an interview with BBC Music Magazine, was that, “to be [as] totally far [as possible]” from Bizet’s scoring for the opera, he wanted an ensemble “without brass and woodwind … that gave me many possibilities” for timbral vareity. The second was the high level of string and percussion players then available in the Bolshoi orchestra.
Tops for Table Tweaking
The recording has tremendous transients and dynamics as well; be prepared to have trouble tracking it. In that respect it’s a prime candidate for table, cartridge and system tweaking. (I once adjusted my anti-skate while playing this very album, at the time dialing it in to a “T”. Over the years I’ve found that the best test for fine anti-skate adjustment is massed strings, and not just at the end of a side but right at the beginning too. When you have all the rosiny texture, the high-end harmonic extension, the least shrillness and the widest and deepest staging, you are there, assuming that tracking weight, azimuth and VTA are correct as well. Four variables to mess with is admittedly a bitch, but having the right record to test with is absolutely critical as well. Maybe we should call it five variables.)
And if I only had one record to bring to someone’s house in order to evaluate their equipment, this would certainly be a top choice. If you can make this record sound the way it should, your stereo is cookin’. If you are having problems, this record will show them to you in surprisingly short order.