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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake - ballet (1877) – highlights [44:21]: ((i) Introduction [3:01] (ii) No.2 Waltz [5:57] (iii) No.5 Pas de deux [10:06] (iv) No.13 Dance of the cygnets [11:22] (v) No.14 Scene [2:48] (vi) No.20 Hungarian dance [3:25] (vii) No.21 Spanish dance [2:42] (viii) No.22 Neapolitan dance [1:45] (ix) No.23 Mazurka [4:07] (x) No.28 Scene [4:19] (xi) No.29 Finale [4:41])
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin/Heinz Rögner
rec. unspecified venue, c.1981


Experience Classicsonline

Largely forgotten East German conductor Heinz Rögner (1929-2001) does not even manage to achieve an entry among his 300+ peers who were included in David Patmore’s Naxos CD/book package The A-Z of Conductors. (Note: he does appear in the encyclopaedic Conductors on Record by John L Holmes, 1982. Ed.

His low profile is in spite of the fact that, for twenty years from 1973, he had headed the prestigious Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, a band that has, in its many incarnations over the years, included as principal conductors such respected figures as Jochum, Celibidache, Abendroth and Frühbeck de Burgos.  Rögner was also closely associated with the Berlin State Opera and, outside East Germany, with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. 

Moreover, a quick Google search uncovers a very impressive and wide-ranging Rögner discography – mainly on the Berlin Classics label – and I am very grateful to its expert compiler Satoshi Kon’no who e-mailed me a great deal of extra and very useful information on a man he categorises as a “great unknown conductor”. You may well be interested in the full range of Mr Kon’no’s discographies.

While no-one suggests that the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin was a front-rank ensemble at the time, Rögner’s admirers assert that his 1970s and 1980s recordings demonstrate not only his special affinity for non-Germanic repertoire but also that intangible quality of podium “greatness”.  Unfortunately, however, the failure to market his recordings properly and his few appearances as guest conductor outside East Germany significantly limited the spread of his wider reputation.  Thus, like Takashi Asahina, Arvid Jansons and Václav Smetáček – all unwilling or unable to travel when at the height of their abilities – Rögner, it is claimed, was never accorded due international recognition. 

So does this recording justify awarding the accolade “great” to Heinz Rögner?  One hopes so – because, if not, what else is there to justify yet another highlights disc of an over-recorded Tchaikovsky ballet score? 

Of course, a CD of less than 45 minutes length will not make any assessment easy.  But, short measure though it is, the quality of Rögner’s music making here is certainly impressive. 

For purposes of comparison, I played this disc alongside a much admired Deutsche Grammophon Originals CD on which Mstislav Rostropovich conducts suites from all three Tchaikovsky ballets (449 726-2) – and I was surprised to find how much more sheer pleasure I derived from the new Berlin Classics disc. 

Rögner, it seems to me, conducts a performance that is far more conscious of the music’s stage origins.  While Rostropovich’s swans sit rather heavily in the water, Rögner’s are far lighter and airier.  One can easily see, in the mind’s eye, real dancers performing on a real stage at the East German conductor’s generally brisk but appropriately chosen tempi.  His Russian counterpart appears, on the other hand, more concerned with presenting his Swan Lake suite as a rather darker orchestral showpiece. 

That impression is emphasised even further by the sound on each disc. Although the recordings were made within just a few years of each other, Rostropovich’s emphasises the Karajan-era Berlin Philharmonic’s woodwinds and its lush, well-upholstered string section, achieving what the original producer describes in his contribution to the accompanying booklet as “overwhelming sonority”. 

Heinz Rögner’s engineers, on the other hand have, given him a more open and translucent, if slightly reverberant, sound picture that places rather greater emphasis, to dramatic effect, on the brass.  Sensitive souls will be pleased, though, that the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin’s players avoid the raucous excesses particularly associated with Soviet orchestras of the time, but which I, for one, guiltily confess to enjoying. 

It is good to hear both conductors paying proper respect to Tchaikovsky’s music by treating it seriously and with care.  But if Rostropovich’s performance primarily induces a sense of admiration, Rögner’s suggests a far greater sense of genuine theatricality and excitement. 

I fear, though, that at less than 45 minutes in length, this is a disc that will quite possibly languish on retailers’ shelves. That is a pity.  There is certainly nothing here to rule out – and quite a lot, indeed, to support – the idea that Heinz Rögner may have been a very good (if not a “great”) conductor.    But we will probably need to hear his performance of the complete ballet - if it was ever recorded - in order finally to make up our minds. 

And, as the market stands at present, it is hard to see why anyone would choose a “highlights” disc at all when, for about a tenner or so, one can buy a first rate performance of the full score. 

Dmitry Yablonsky’s exciting interpretation, very well played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos label (8.555873/4), was a previous MusicWeb International Bargain of the Month (see review). 

But, for just a little more cash, my own preference for a complete Swan Lake remains the boldly colourful and entirely idiomatic Evgeny Svetlanov with the same orchestra - then labelled as merely the “State Symphony Orchestra” - on, if you can find it, BMG/Melodiya 74321170822.  It really is the real thing, raucous Soviet brass and all!

Rob Maynard



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