Listening to Britten – Pas de Six (The Prince of the Pagodas), Op.57a


Image from the Royal Opera House production of The Prince of the Pagodas. (c) Royal Opera House 2012

Pas de Six (The Prince of the Pagodas), Op.57a – excerpt from the ballet for orchestra (early 1955 – Autumn 1956), Britten aged 42)

Dedication Britten’s assistant Imogen Holst and the ballerina and Sadler’s Wells artistic director Ninette de Valois
Duration 115′

Audio

A clip from the first recording of the ballet, with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca.

Pas de Six

Background and Critical Reception

The Pas de Six has proved to be one of the most popular extracts from Britten’s music for The Prince of the Pagodas, and as such was given the distinction of a separate catalogue entry, under Op.57a.

It is placed towards the start of Act 3 in the ballet, just after Britten’s striking portrait of the Pagoda Palace, and is marked ‘quick and energetic’.

Thoughts

In truth there are a number of potential concert excerpts from Britten’s colourful ballet score, all of which deserve to be heard more often, but the Pas de Six gets its own extract.

It is a bright, vivacious dance sequence, with lively violins giving way to a more thoughtful oboe solo, This in turn returns to a full orchestral tutti and a quick fire ending in C major, the violins scurrying around before a perfunctory sign-off.
A nice lollipop, for sure – but you’d be firmly encouraged to take in the rest of the ballet as well as this.

Recordings used

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen (EMI)

As with the main ballet recordings, Britten’s orchestra has a leaner sound. Knussen, helped by a recording that has more bloom, is the more charming on this occasion.

Spotify

Happily both the recordings of the ballet score are available for streaming, along with a version of a suite made by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke. Oliver Knussen conducts the London Sinfonietta in the fullest version here, while Britten himself conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra here. The suite, coupled with music by Colin McPhee, can be heard here, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Pas de Six can be accessed within each of these.

Also written in 1956: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – My Fair Lady

Next up: Avenging and bright

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