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Collection features almost all the music Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes danced to


This is FRESH AIR. In 1909, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev came to Paris with a company he called the Ballet Russe and created a sensation that lasted until Diaghilev's death 20 years later. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says these extraordinary collaborations of dancers, singers, choreographers, composers and designers transformed and revolutionized ballet. Here's Lloyd's review of a 22-disc set of almost all the music the Ballet Russe ever danced to.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Astonish me, the legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev famously challenged the multifaceted writer-director Jean Cocteau, who was part of Diaghilev's astonishing inner circle. Diaghilev astonished audiences with legendary dancers like Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava. He had sets designed by Picasso and Matisse and costumes by no less a fashion icon than Coco Chanel. But maybe most astonishing and most lasting was the music Diaghilev commissioned - music first meant to be seen as well as heard. Among the masterpieces were Stravinsky's first three major ballets - "Firebird," "Petrushka," and especially "The Rite of Spring," which, at its premiere in 1913, created the most notorious theatrical riot of the century.

Diaghilev commissioned nearly a dozen works by Stravinsky, including the sublime "Apollo" and Prokofiev's "The Prodigal Son," two ballets choreographed by George Balanchine at the beginning of his career that are still widely performed nearly a century later. Important new works included Ravel's "Daphnis And Chloe" and Debussy's sexy and mysterious "Jeux" - games - which Nijinsky both danced in and choreographed as an erotic threesome pretending to be a tennis game.

Diaghilev's single most important commission was undoubtedly Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring," which is to 20th century classical music what, a decade later, T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" would become for 20th century poetry, a work that changed the entire direction of its art form. One of the most historic recordings in this set is the very first complete recording of "The Rite Of Spring," conducted by Pierre Monteux 16 years after he led the notorious premiere. Monteux emphasizes the work's haunting beauty and rhythmic freshness, the seductive way the sounds of nature waking up morph into primitive ritual, de-emphasizing the mere violence that has become a cliche in so many contemporary performances.


SCHWARTZ: The "Ballets Russes" is probably best remembered for being avant garde. But Diaghilev was also responsible for restoring some ballet classics. Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" was a failure at its premiere in 1877. But the "Ballets Russes" production in London in 1911, with Nijinsky as the prince in love with the bewitched Swan Queen, was one of its earliest successful revivals. The recording in this set is by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, with Ida Haendel playing the luscious violin solos.


SCHWARTZ: I have a special fondness for the music to some "Ballets Russes" hits that are now almost entirely forgotten as dances, pieces like Erik Satie's witty "Parade" from 1917, with an orchestra that includes a train whistle and a typewriter. It's probably now best remembered as the first theater piece with sets and costumes by Picasso.


SCHWARTZ: That excerpt from "Parade" is from a 1954 recording conducted by a musician intimately connected to the "Ballets Russes," Igor Markevitch, who was the last in the series of Diaghilev's gifted young proteges and lovers. After Diaghilev died, Markevitch married Nijinsky's daughter and became one of the 20th century's most beloved conductors, especially in this repertoire. Listening to music for legendary ballets I'll probably never get to see gives me chills. At least in these superlative recordings, the lost dances come alive in my own imagination.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His most recent book is called "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." It's published by the University of Chicago Press. He reviewed the 22-CD set "Diaghilev: Ballets Russes" on the Warner label.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how everything from the place where you buy your coffee and doughnut to your child's pre-K learning center, your loved one's nursing home, your ER and your supermarket may be owned or overseen by private equity firms. We'll talk with financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson about her new book, "These Are The Plunderers: How Private Equity Runs - And Wrecks - America." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "EXIT MUSIC (FOR A FILM)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.