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Classical Lost And Found: A Knight And Damsel's Pas De Deux

Philippe Gaubert's little-known ballet <em>Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle</em> recieves its world premiere recording.
Timpani Records
Philippe Gaubert's little-known ballet Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle recieves its world premiere recording.

Until recently, Philippe Gaubert was best remembered as a conductor and exceptional flutist active in France between the two World Wars. But he also composed some distinguished orchestral music which, thanks to the enterprising Paris-based Timpani label, has come as a welcome surprise to classical collectors who'd thought they had everything.

This world premiere recording of Gaubert's 1940 ballet Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle (The Knight and the Damsel), captures the last and reputedly finest of his symphonic creations. It's in the tradition of such late Romantic French ballet scores as Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane and Poulenc's Les animaux modèles.

In two acts, the story takes place during the Middle Ages, and concerns a beautiful princess under a spell that turns her into a doe each night. She can be freed from the magic only by meeting a man who will "make her know suffering."

The score opens with a commanding six-note ostinato that recurs throughout the ballet and serves to unify it. The first dance, spiked with a dash of polytonality, introduces the princess in her daytime human form along with her three attendants. But as night falls, she joins a group of deer at the edge of the woods and suddenly transforms into a doe.

Beautiful scenes with lilting passages for solo flute and violin depict the doe-princess' encounters with a knight-errant, during which she changes back to human form. The act ends joyously in a stunning pas de deux as they fall in love, after which the attendants return and carry the princess off.

The princess pines for her lost knight in the mournful entr'acte that opens Act 2, and organizes a tournament in hopes of luring him back. Several colorful rustic sections follow, including a piquant oboe-spiced pastorale, a haughty, Renaissance-inflected peasant dance and one in a delicate Medieval style.

The ballet's conclusion is highlighted by three exciting jousting episodes, after which the princess and knight are reunited in an amorous waltz, followed by a brief reminder of her four-legged adventures. The work ends as the people honor the happy couple in a festive, high-stepping frolic.

Conductor Marc Soustrot's sensitive leadership of the Luxembourg Philharmonic gives us what will undoubtedly be the definitive recording of this rarity for some time to come.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston