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Peter Il'ych Tchaikovsky (1850-1893)
Swan Lake - Grand Ballet in Three Acts (1877)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Rec. Studio 5 Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, July 2001
NAXOS 8.555873-874 [2CDs: 147.56]

It is always difficult, I think, to review a recording of an immensely popular and perhaps somewhat hackneyed work such as Swan Lake.

I looked up the Amazon CD site and discovered that there were 173 entries for this ballet. Admittedly most of them are excerpts and not complete recordings. However it gives some impression of the scale of the popularity of this work. Most people know at least the purple passages from this early masterpiece. I have not listened to many recordings of this work so I am not able to provide a comprehensive list of comparisons. My knowledge is limited to the fine Richard Bonynge (Decca 473 283) and Andre Previn (EMI 5 73624) recordings which I have known for some time, both being recorded in the early 1970s.

A quick look at the Naxos catalogue reveals that this company also has another recording on its books - that by Ondrej Lenard (8.550246-247). I have not heard that version.

It seems almost churlish to retell the story of the ballet, as it is probably well known to all but the most detached of ballet lovers. However just for the record, my one paragraph synopsis will have to suffice!

It is concerned with love and a girl called Odette. She is transformed by the wicked Rothbart into a swan. She is saved from death by the exertions of Siegfried who has fallen in love with her during the few hours each night she is restored to human form. There are two endings to the story - one where Odette and Siegfried have a 'happy ever after' sort of life and the other where they drown.

A brief review is not the place to give a résumé of the complex history of this work; enough to say that it was Tchaikovsky's first major ballet score. It was based on a German fairy tale that appealed strongly to his imagination. The first production was at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877. It is interesting to note that it was not an immediate success. It is also useful to remember that the composer was seriously influenced by the French composer, Léo Delibes of Coppelia and Sylvia fame.

So now we turn to consideration of the CD in hand.

The first question to be asked is quite simply: Is there room in the catalogue for yet another recording, no matter how good?

This is always a difficult question. On the one hand we do not want the CD market overstretching itself; diluting the number of CDs bought to such an extent that numbers sold are not viable. Competition is a good thing, but perhaps it can become too much. There are only a few people out there who will buy every new recording of a particular work. Most of us settle for one or perhaps two. And then there is a steady stream of new buyers seeking their first copy of this ballet. On the other hand it is good that CD companies are constantly trying to revisit music for the present age. Each new generation of conductors brings the light of recent scholarship and current thinking about instrumentation, cuts, repeats and tempi of a given work. This is all admirable and essential. So on balance I welcome 'yet another recording.'

The physical presentation of this Naxos CD is very good. The historical notes are a bit on the short side, however the synopsis of the ballet is excellent. I have no complaints about the sound or the playing of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under their conductor, Dmitry Yablonsky. It is superb.

One of the features about this particular recording is the symphonic feel to the performance. It is as if the conductor has conceived it as a tone poem or perhaps even as a symphony (four acts - four movements!). Now this is perhaps no bad thing. Not everyone is enamoured with the full panoply of balletic convention. 'Men in tights' as one of my less sophisticated colleagues would say do not appeal to everyone. Now, of course I do not entirely agree - but there is enough residue of sixth-form humour in me to have some sympathy with this view.

With Yablonsky's version of this great work we can enjoy it (if we choose) as a kind of Straussian (Richard) tone poem. The ‘plot’ is fundamentally about the striving of a 'superhero' against evil and allowing him to triumph through the power of love.

So how does Yablonsky’s version compare to the other recordings? Well, Bonynge is operatic in his conception rather than symphonic. Previn for me brings greater excitement than Yablonsky, but once again it is predicated on having sight as well as hearing stimulated. One mentally has to supply the dancing with Previn.

What we have in this Naxos recording is a fine concert performance that allows us to concentrate on the music without having to superimpose movement, colour and narrative. Although we can if we want to - and it is excellent too!

John France

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