> Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake [PJL]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake: ballet in four acts, Op 20 (1877)
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Michael Tilson Thomas
with Rodney Franks (solo cornet), Alexander Barantschik (solo violin), Douglas Cummings (solo cello)
rec 1980s? DDD
SONY SB2K89735 [CD1=76.48; CD2=72.16]


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Michael Tilson Thomas really is an extremely reliable conductor. What has he committed to disc which isn’t absolutely top-drawer stuff? I remember his earliest Boston recordings for DGG: highly individual readings of Debussy, Ravel, Ives and Ruggles, which positively blazed with colour. More recently, we’ve had his class-leading Stravinsky ballets with the San Francisco orchestra, showing not only a meticulous preoccupation with orchestral detail, but also a rare organic strength. Then there is his superb Mahler series (a heart-rending Sixth has just been issued) and those wonderful Copland discs, alive with atmosphere and restless balletic energy. As a Bernstein protégé, he shares with his mentor an unusual degree of empathy with the composer’s mind; a tangible sense of theatre; and a fondness for going near (but not over) the ‘interpretative edge’ – drawing out the last ounce of drama but never overstating, pressing hard but never losing his feet. All indispensable ingredients for a Tchaikovsky conductor!

I must confess that I’d not come across this Swan Lake before. It appears to have been recorded around 1990, and exemplifies Tilson Thomas and the LSO at the height of their powers. Tempi are almost invariably brisk, leading to some hair-rising excitement: the orchestra clearly relish every moment that Tilson Thomas slips into overdrive, and their virtuosity is a joy to behold. The big moments are well-judged: red-blooded rather than histrionic. On the other hand, the famous Waltz lilts most attractively, and the various orchestral solos have all the sweetness, delicacy and polish one could possibly want: indeed they give tremendous pleasure.

No two recordings of this ballet offer exactly the same score, or the same sequence of numbers from the score. As the piece appeared in various guises between its 1877 première and countless subsequent (and posthumous) revivals, there can be no agreement about what precisely is definitive. So far as I can establish, Tilson Thomas plays the original score with the sole exception of the Act III Pas de deux, which (as seems often to be the case these days) is cut.

Sound quality is rich and vivid, with impressive amplitude: if anything, the percussion is too explosive. There is a valuable synopsis in the booklet: alas, not cued.

Lanchberry’s Classics for Pleasure set of Swan Lake (CD-CFPD 4747) is a serious rival at this price – well played, vividly recorded and highly theatrical. By comparison, Ozawa’s (on DG Double 453 055-2) seems studio-bound, despite abundant colour and excitement. Ermler’s (with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra: yes, they have played it before…) is tremendously involving, but at full price (ROH 301/2). So too is Dutoit (on Decca 436 212-2), whose reading is warm and sumptuous, rather than hard-pressed and brilliant: but uniquely satisfying, even so.

The only possible reason for preferring any alternative version would be to have Acts I and II complete on one CD, with Acts III and IV complete on the second: as in Lanchberry’s recording. The break here, on the Tilson Thomas CDs, comes between the penultimate (Pas d’action) and closing sections of the Danse des cygnes towards the end of Act II: though far from ideal, this is no worse (or better) than on other issues.

Despite this, I’m happy to award a shared first prize (certainly not a second prize) to Tilson Thomas, the LSO and its excellent soloists, and – last but not least – the Sony engineers. Enthusiastically recommended.

Peter J Lawson

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