Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake/Gergiev

Review by: Victor Carr Jr

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 8

Decca’s promotional copy notwithstanding, it’s The Sleeping Beauty and not Swan Lake that is “Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Ballet”. The composer’s first balletic effort draws liberally on its French models, particularly Delibes, whose music in some numbers Tchaikovsky emulates, right down to the orchestration. But the originality and power of Tchaikovsky’s conception comes through nonetheless, and it’s this element that gives the work its enduring value.

Unfortunately the score used in this recording, a revision prepared by the composer’s brother Modest and the conductor Ricardo Drigo, waters down much that was novel and distinctive in Tchaikovsky’s original. First of all, about a third of the music has been cut, leaving a playing time of around 110 minutes, instead of the usual two and one-half hours. Granted, much of this is da capo repeats, and Leonard Slatkin proved that less can be more by excising repeated material. But the Drigo version goes well beyond this, cutting flesh along with the flab, often to the detriment of the music.

A few examples: the Act 1 waltz has been moved to Act 3, and its ending truncated. Act 2’s No. 11 suffers several patently unnecessary cuts, including a dramatic passage just before the climactic minor-key brass fanfare. Act 3 suffers the most cuts–many characteristic dances are gone, and several remaining numbers have been melded together and labeled “Interpolations”. In a number of instances the music’s key has been altered (usually transposed up) to make the transition to a different number than the one Tchaikovsky originally indicated (hence, No. 18 gets mashed into No. 21’s Spanish Dance).

Most egregious is Act 4, where the hauntingly beautiful No. 26 has been replaced by two Tchaikovsky solo piano pieces (orchestrated to sound like Borodin), the second of which is placed senselessly between the famous No. 28 Scene and the Finale, which suffers similarly from nonsensical cuts.

Valery Gergiev previously recorded a blistering Sleeping Beauty for Philips, a recording that, except for the sound, arguably is the finest of that work. He does a fine job with this Swan Lake, clearly not bothered by the heavily altered text. The Mariinsky Theater musicians play beautifully, though without the razor’s edge virtuosity they displayed on the Sleeping Beauty recording.

The real problem with this release is that in no way does Decca indicate that this is not the same Swan Lake usually found on recordings (including another one from Decca, featuring Charles Dutoit), an omission that in all probability will cause much frustration on the part of purchasers. The live recording, while not audiophile quality, features better sound than on earlier Philips releases from these artists.

The Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony and Yablonsky/Russian State Symphony recordings both employ judicious editing of repeats (though Yablonsky includes the usually excised Russian Dance and Pas de deux) while also offering stirring conducting and excellent playing. Dutoit and Sawallisch are also fine standard version alternatives. Completists must seek out the rare Rozhdestvensky Melodiya recording which, in addition to every repeat, features stunningly sharp-edged playing–but unfortunately, unflattering sound.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Slatkin (RCA), Yablonsky (Naxos), Rozdhestvensky (Melodiya)


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