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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893): The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (Special concert edition)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
Recording: Royal Festival Hall, London, 10 October 1979
BBC Legends BBCL 4091-2 [141.17]


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I have been rather surprised that Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has not featured more prominently in the highly successful BBC Legends series. After all, he was the charismatic Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, albeit for an all-too-brief period (1978-1982), and subsequent to that he has appeared quite often as a guest conductor. However, this issue makes handsome amends and I hope it will be followed by more of his recordings.

In the early 1980s the BBC issued on LP a complete recording of this ballet by Rozhdestvensky and his orchestra (a recording which I don’t believe has ever been issued on CD). This is not that recording. What we have here instead is the live performance which was given immediately prior to the studio sessions. For this performance at least it seems that Rozhdestvensky made a few small cuts in the score. However, only a few repeats were thus excised; no movements were entirely omitted and I doubt anyone will complain. The cuts explain why this version of the score is billed as a "Special concert edition."

As is usual with these BBC Legends recordings, the notes tell us something of the circumstances of the performance. In this case, the start of the concert was delayed for a full 45 minutes because the unfortunate bass trombone player had been held up in London’s traffic congestion and the conductor refused to begin without him. Since the music itself lasts for over two and a half hours, without allowance for intervals, the concert cannot have finished before 11 pm. However, I suspect that the audience probably didn’t mind too much as the performance, when it eventually began, was of high quality.

Prior to joining the BBC Rozhdestvensky had been for nearly 20 years on the conducting staff of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, rising to the status of Principal Conductor (1965-1970). Indeed, it was with Sleeping Beauty that he made his debut in that theatre, in 1951, at the age of just twenty. It seems to me that this present performance benefits hugely both from his deep knowledge of the score in question and from his long theatrical experience. In Rozhdestvensky’s hands the score unfolds dramatically, the pacing is adroit and convincing, and rhythms are deft and supple. He conjures from his BBC orchestra playing which appropriately mixes passion, delicacy and verve. To be sure, there are a few fluffs and on occasion the ensemble is not quite unanimous but such blemishes are rare and do not detract from the overall success of the performance which has great sweep and commitment. I guess the BBC players enjoyed and relished what must have been for them a rare opportunity to play such a score in full; certainly, it sounds as if they did.

In short, though this is a concert rendition and one given by a symphony orchestra rather than by a theatre orchestra, there is a whiff of greasepaint about the proceedings and I found myself caught up in the performance and carried along by it. All the well-known highlights such as the Waltz (No. 6) and Scene (No. 7) in Act 1 and the Panorama (No. 17) in Act 2 come off very well. However, much of the value in this release lies in the fact that we get the chance to hear many other winning items, often very brief, which are only usually heard in the theatre.

My enjoyment would have been still greater if a synopsis had been provided. Really, such information is vital for anyone other than balletomanes who know the ballet well. (It is just as important as is the provision of texts and translations for vocal items, something which BBC Legends consistently fail to provide, to their shame.) I must say that for such a prestigious series the documentation still leaves something to be desired. I do also regret that the (excellent) leader and principal cellist, who both contribute important solos, are not credited – but, then, this might be unfair to the excellent and hard-working wind principals.

The recorded sound is typical BBC sound of that vintage, which is to say very good, despite the dry Festival Hall acoustics. The BBC engineers balanced the orchestra very well and on my equipment there was ample detail as well as a convincing overall sound image of the full orchestra. There are some coughs and wheezes from the audience but these do not constitute a significant distraction.

These well-filled CDs contain a stylish, ebullient and exhilarating performance of a great ballet score. They also constitute an excellent souvenir of Rozhdestvensky’s work with the BBCSO. I enjoyed this vivid and idiomatic performance very much and can recommend it confidently.

John Quinn

 


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