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Silverline Classics


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Swan Lake Ballet Op 20 (1875/7) [104.46]
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel
Recording location and date not given [1967?]
On disk extras: photos and documents of artists; memorial tribute speech by Ardean Watts [16.00]; "remembering the Utah Symphony Orchestra 3.00];" Composer biography; Technical documentary [6.00]; Speaker set-up utility.
DVD-Audio 2.0 and 5.1. DVD 2.0 and 5.1 AC-3. ADD
Playable on all DVD players

SILVERLINE CLASSICS DVD-AUDIO 288235-9 [104.46 + 25.00]

Comparison Recordings:
Previn, LSO. [ADD] EMI 5 73624-2
Dorati, Minneapolis SO [ADD mono] Mercury Living Presence 289 462 950-2
Abravanel, USO [excerpts ADD] Westminster MCAD2-9801-B

I have always enjoyed listening to the complete Swan Lake Ballet as a single piece of music, a very long symphony. Ah, what is a symphony? "Symphonies" have been written for solo organ and solo piano. Mahler declined to number his actual ninth symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, and Szymanowski all declined to number their fourth symphonies, although in the latter case nobody has ever attempted to explain why. Is Mussorgskyís "Pictures from an Exhibition" a Symphony? The only definition that holds water these days is: "A lengthy and important orchestral work in several sections." We have one movement symphonies, and Alan Hovhanessís "St. Vartan Symphony" is made up of 24 movements, most of them in a dance format. So is Tchaikovskyís Opus 20 a symphony in 29 movements?

I say so. Tchaikovsky knew it was his masterpiece and died assuming it would never be appreciated. It is one of four works written within five years of each other in four different European countries with the same story ó Carmen, Götterdämmerung, and Aïda are the others. As if to underscore the connection, Tchaikovskyís hero is named Siegfried. All these works deal with lovers whose love is forbidden by convention or patriotism or mythic obligations, or what have you. And in the end everybody dies, asserting that individuals will never "be sensible" and give up their rights to self-expression, but will go to death defiant. In all of these works the protagonists are momentarily deceived by magic and/or seduction and it is this which leads to their ultimate destruction. Together these works added up to a powerful condemnation of the oppression of the individual by rigid social convention and were the artistic manifestation of social and political forces for change that were not significantly manifest until nearly fifty years later. After Carmen, Aïda, and the completed Ring, opera was never the same. And most people have never seen and cannot name a ballet that predates Swan Lake*.

Parts of the work, including the famous violin solos, were reworked by Tchaikovsky from earlier works, all tragic fantasy love stories like Romeo and Juliet and Ondine, but the sequence of dances, diverse as they are, arranged in an extremely effective dramatic sequence, accumulates to an overwhelming conclusion. From its premier the work has been denounced by dancers and choreographers as being "too symphonic." Of course it is ó itís a music drama/choreographic poem. The various dances seem to be entirely distinct original tunes, with the whole held together by the "fate" motif, a musical phrase that tries to rise, seems to pound against a barrier, then falls. A similar musical tone painting is found in the fate theme from Vaughan Williams Antarctic Symphony, but Vaughan Williams was not a believer so the end is not a transfiguration, but a melting away into the flow of natural processes. Tchaikovskyís message is that somehow, somewhere, it will all work out for the best, that love will prove the more powerful of forces ó an adolescent message, but one we do well to be reminded of.

Frederick Ashton provided a choreography that gives happy ending with Rothbart dead and the lovers alive, and no change in the music.

All three of the featured complete recordings use the same "complete" score which was at one time controversial but is now obviously routine.

My source gives 1967 as the date of this recording which I have trouble believing. The earlier recording of Swan Lake excerpts that Abravanel did for Westminster is dated 1958, as shown on the orchestraís website discography page. 1967 would be just too early for this level of sophistication in surround sound, unless it was originally a multi-track recording and all the separate tracks were preserved to be re-mixed for this release, and this must be the case.

The way you tell a good surround-sound recording is not just that you can hear the echo off the back wall of the auditorium. Itís that you can see not only the width of the orchestra from side to side, but also the depth. And when you close your eyes you cannot tell where the speakers are no matter how you move your head, but you can tell where each one of the instruments is, side to side, front to back. I have been listening to these new Silverline releases looking for a REAL multi-channel recording and I have finally found it. This gorgeous recording fills your music room with sound sources. My main reservation is that Abravanelís bass drum is a tenor, not a basso profundo, but I can understand Abravanelís fastidiousness: Tchaikovsky did rather over-do the bass drum in this score. But you may want to turn up your bass control a little for this disk.

In case you were curious as was I why Abravanelís biographical sketches omit the war [WWII] years, rest assured that he was in New York the whole time, after he completed a tour of Australia in 1934 with the British National Opera Company. His secret, unremarked-upon sin was conducting the premiers of Broadway musicals for his friend and teacher Kurt Weill, notably Lady in the Dark, etc. One can easily understand why in 1947 he was ready to move to Salt Lake City; in 1947 it was a very small town ó I know, I was there.

Even though in 1877, at 36, in his Opus 20, Tchaikovsky created his masterpiece, I donít mean to say it was all downhill for him from there on, but the road only occasionally climbed so high, and never again with the raging swagger of youth. Sleeping Beauty, generally considered superior to Swan Lake, is more polished but also more extroverted and less heartful. Obviously, Abravanel agrees with me, for this recording is his masterpiece. He has lovingly sculpted this work and if I donít at first agree with everything he does, I understand his motives and will probably eventually come to agree with his means as I agree with his results.

In the final analysis, this performance is just one click below the absolute top. A little restraint and nobility are always welcome in Tchaikovsky; the Previn recording is every bit as noble with just a little more heart. Previnís sound in currently available releases is not as good as Abravanelís, but the Previn performance was likely recorded as a four channel master, and if EMI were to release it on DVD-Audio, it would give Abravanel some real competition. Iíll want them both, of course. And I finally completely understand where Prokofiev got the idea for the snare drum he used in the final pas de deux in his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Here is the list of people who produced this magnificent disk for us. Stand up and take a bow, guys!

Executive producers: John Trickett, Jeff Dean, Bob Michaels
5.1 mix: Rich Fowler at 5.1 Production Services
5.1 Mastering: Adrian Van Velsen at 5.1 Mastering
Mastering Assistant: Michael Yip
Chief Engineer: Chris Haynes
Audio Transfers: Ken Ramos
Transfer QC: Jason Desmond
Audio restoration: Michael Yip, Rich Fowler, Ken Ramos
Audio encoding: Michael Yip
Video production and encoding: A. J. Lara
Authoring: Ignacio Monge at 5.1 Production Services
DVD Authoring: Eddie Escalante, Ignacio Monge, and Kristian Storli at 5.1 Production Services.

If you donít have a surround sound DVD-Audio player, buy one so you can show it off with this disk. If you play the disk on your regular DVD player in surround sound you hear the same superb surround sound acoustic, but with reduced dynamic range. If you opt for the two channel DVD sound and use your playerís surround sound enhancement, you get much of the dynamic range back, but you lose the precision of the surround sound perspective. But any way you listen to it, this disk is a magnificent musical experience.

The cover says the disk is playable on "all DVD players," but I had intermittent difficulty playing it under Software Cinemaster and DVDX computer players on my 400 MHz Pentium II machine.

*OK, Coppélia, 1870; but itís rarely performed complete even though excerpts are now and then played in concert, like Beethovenís Creatures of Prometheus or Gluckís Don Juan.

Paul Shoemaker

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