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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op.20 - Ballet in Three Acts (1875) (Mariinsky performing edn 1895) [106:59]
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, 28 May- 4 June 2006
DECCA 475 7669 [58:49 + 48:10] Highlights disc 475 9080 [76:15]

These two releases present the reviewer with something of a conundrum. Playing and conducting are of the sort of quality we have come to expect from this source, but there are compromises. Decca trumpets a ‘spectacular new studio recording of Tchaikovsky’s complete score’ over the 2-cd set, and here’s the first problem – it’s nothing of the sort. It has been recorded under studio conditions in the empty Mariinsky Theatre - of which more later - but when you see a total time of around 107 minutes, you know it’s not the full score, which generally runs at nearer 150 minutes. The clue is on the back cover, where it states in quite small print ‘Mariinsky performing version’ – and nothing else. Only in the inner booklet is the buyer filled in on the details.
This turns out to be a recording of an 1895 revision prepared by the composer’s brother Modest, in conjunction with the conductor Riccardo Drigo and choreographer Marius Petipa. It dilutes much of the original, not just cutting da capo repeats - as others do - but excising whole chunks and altering the running order. If you don’t know the score that well, or are used to highlights discs, then enjoyment may be relatively unaffected, but if you really want the score complete – and it is worth it – then you need to think carefully.
To illustrate just a few cases of what’s been done here: Act 1’s ‘Pas de deux’ has been needlessly moved to Act 3, with its ending altered. Act 3 itself has many cuts, with some familiar numbers - including the ‘Pas de six’ and its variations - simply gone, others conflated without improvement. Act 2’s No.11 suffers an unnecessary cut that also changes its climactic, typically Tchaikovskian, brass fanfare. Keys have been altered to make some of the changes work, so the composer’s subtle structural thoughts are spoilt. In Act 4 there are even uncharacteristic orchestrations of some of his piano music to replace more familiar numbers; so Tchaikovsky’s ‘Danses de petits cygnes’ is replaced at this point by a Drigo-arranged ‘Valses bluette’. I’m sure others will find more examples – remember, 40 minutes is gone – but you get the idea. Of course, there are attempts to justify it all in the booklet, with one paragraph entitled ‘The Mariinsky Version: a hot line to 1895’ which seeks to persuade us it’s all for the best. I remain unconvinced.
So you pays your money …. The playing has great virtuosity and fervour, and is full of the sort of flair we expect from Gergiev and his forces. There’s some wonderful solo work, but the recording strikes me as somewhat bass heavy, though it is better balanced than some things I’ve heard from this source. The conundrum mentioned earlier is that, in all honesty, it’s virtually impossible to recommend the ‘full’ version over the highlights disc, which is very well filled and doesn’t make the cuts as obvious. However it is at full price. On the other hand the two-disc set is priced at upper-mid level. If you feel you must have this conductor, who has a dedicated fan-base, you might consider the DVD of the production that preceded this recording.

Either way, the CD competition is too fierce for any sort of unqualified recommendation, and the prospective buyer is well advised to seek out alternatives. There is Yablonski and his Russian State Symphony recording on budget Naxos; this has been very well reviewed elsewhere. I also have a high regard for veteran ballet conductor John Lanchbery’s excellent 1982 Philharmonia version on Classics for Pleasure, full of superb woodwind and sumptuous strings and beautifully recorded. This is at budget price. It is also to be had coupled with complete versions of the other two ballets on CFP at around £18.00 for six discs, a true bargain. In state-of-the-art modern digital, there is Dutoit – also Decca and an obvious rival for Gergiev - or Slatkin and his St. Louis orchestra on RCA, both highly regarded and complete in a much more acceptable sense. It may be unduly negative towards this new Decca set, but I do think the potential purchaser is being rather misled here.
Tony Haywood


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