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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake (1876)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
Rec August 1975, Kingsway Hall, London
DECCA 473 283-2 [79.49+76.37]


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These two well filled CDs, containing one of Tchaikovsky's greatest score, represent excellent value for money in this handsomely produced Decca reissue.

Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky's first ballet, and followed close on the example set by his favourite composer, the Frenchman Léo Delibes, of writing a full-scale ballet which tells a story, like an opera without words. Inevitably the concept challenged contemporary notions and contemporary standards. But in the longer term we know well enough that Tchaikovsky's vision was triumphant.

Richard Bonynge, the conductor on this set, enjoyed a highly successful career as an opera conductor as well as being associated with the ballet. And his performance is well shaped and well paced, the lighter dance numbers, such as that of the Little Swans, being particularly well handled. The National Philharmonic Orchestra, a recording ensemble which attracted the best players around in London at the time, brings a highly polished and rich toned standard of playing. There is no question that these are attractive features, and no one acquiring these discs will go unrewarded.

The quasi-operatic drama is something in which Bonynge revels, and quite rightly. This is apparent, in fact, from the very opening, with its heavy drumrolls and pounding brass, which join to make an immediate impression, one which is repeatedly confirmed as the music proceeds.

The recorded sound is generally pleasing, though the string sound might benefit from more bloom and fullness. Occasionally, and most especially in Act IV, there are some indulgently slow tempi which rob the music of a certain impetus. This is a criticism which cannot be ignored in the context of listening to the complete ballet without the support of the visual element. Not that there is anything wrong in doing so, of course, since Tchaikovsky's ballets are symphonic in their weight of development, and carry their momentum across the longer term..

This is undoubtedly an appealing package which offers very good value. Ultimately, however, it must give way to Russian performances such as those (on Melodiya) conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, Gennady Rozhdestvensky or Yevgeny Svetlanov. All these have a more burning intensity and conviction, despite their uneven and occasionally rough recorded sound. That is not to dismiss the present set, which will give much pleasure; and perhaps in an ideal world the committed collector might possess more than one recording.

One thing above all is for sure; this is a great piece and excerpts alone, in the form of the popular Suite, are a poor substitute for the glorious full score.

Terry Barfoot



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