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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake op.20 (1877) [155:38]
Ida Haendel (violin), Douglas Cummings (violoncello)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. 26-28 May, 8-10 June 1976, Kingsway Hall, London
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 3 93243 2 [77:52 + 77:46]

“Classics for Pleasure” has a nostalgic ring, but when I was buying cheap LPs in my university days the CFP “Swan Lake” was a single disc of extracts by the Philharmonia under Efrem Kurtz with Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin solos.
In 1976 Previn was about two-thirds through his decade with the LSO. With an EMI contract under their belt the team was flooding the market with reliable, musicianly versions of the popular repertoire. Everything here is beautifully played, in good style, with lively rhythms, warm, relaxed phrasing and some excellent wind solos. I thought the Mazurka (no.23) a bit too fast but there’s nothing else to fault. You can tell the amount of care that went into it from the fact that the movements which you only hear in complete performances are done to the same standard as the ones the orchestra could play blindfold.
And yet … I prepared this review contemporaneously with that of the single CD of extracts recorded by Fistoulari with the Concertgebouw. Comparing Fistoulari with Kurtz I wrote that “In each of the movements they have in common … Fistoulari, with a slight tweak of the tempo faster or slower, with sharper articulation, more detailed phrasing and greater appreciation of the orchestral colour, brings the music into focus. You feel that he is challenging and stretching the orchestra to the brink while Kurtz just lets them play”. A comparison between Fistoulari and Previn reveals the same thing. Whereas between Previn and Kurtz it is a matter of swings and roundabouts, sometimes one is a little preferable, sometimes the other. Previn does get considerable panache in the festivities of Act III and in the final scene he at last stretches the orchestra, creating the sort of colossal tension that Fistoulari gets all the time. 1976 would be about the time when the LSO came to realize that for all Previn’s excellent qualities, they were ultimately under-achieving under his amiable management. If they were to maintain their international status they needed someone to challenge them, as Abbado later did.
I remarked that Kurtz’s saving grace was the presence of Yehudi Menuhin, whose playing “has a vocal, intensely human quality”. Ida Haendel has a different personality, of course, but a similarly “vocal, intensely human quality” shines through. The movements in which she appears are the highlights of the performance.
And so? This is a safe recommendation, no doubt. But “safety first” isn’t the best way to conduct Tchaikovsky and I’m not sure you wouldn’t do better to have 46 minutes of this music under Fistoulari than the whole thing under Previn. Unfortunately I am not able to advise readers over the merits of Fistoulari’s more complete versions, though the earliest (1952) is in mono and the later one had Phase 4 sound which not everybody likes.
For a bit of dangerous living I fished out a curious string of movements taped off the air under a conductor once hailed in Italy as the greatest living interpreter of Tchaikovsky – Vladimir Delman (1923-1994): the great Pas de Deux for Siegfried and Odette with the maximum of its mournful poetry squeezed from it and shorn of its final Allegro, the opening bars of no.11 treated as an introduction to the Bolero, the Czardas and an outrageously camp version of the Neapolitan Dance. All done with a verve, a gut conviction and a desire to communicate you just don’t find in Previn.
But still, as I say, Previn is a “safe recommendation”. A detailed synopsis is provided, but some of the tracks are too long. The Dances of the Swans in Act II, for example, have a single track of 17:50. Yet they consist of seven distinct movements with pauses between each other. Did it not occur to whoever prepared this that some listeners might like to be able to separate out the Pas de Deux with its memorable contribution from Haendel?
Christopher Howell


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