The enduring popularity of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker has, over
the years, tempted several arrangers and choreographers to try
their hand at creating “new” Tchaikovsky ballets.
George Balanchine was particularly keen on the idea, producing Serenade
(1935) which utilises the Serenade for Strings in C,
op.48; Ballet Imperial a.k.a. Concerto no.2 (1941,
re-choreographed 1973) featuring music from the second piano
concerto; and Jewels (1967), where the third act (Diamonds)
was set to music from the Third Symphony. Another New York
City Balletmaster, Peter Martins, followed the tradition established
by Balanchine with Symphony no.1 (1981). And I note
that this year sees the release on DVD of Darcey Bussell, Irek
Mukhamedov and the Royal Ballet in a 1992 performance of Kenneth
MacMillan’s one-act Winter Dreams, a reworking of the
Chekhov play Three Sisters that is set to yet more Tchaikovsky.
John Cranko’s full length ballet Onegin (1965) follows the
story unfolded in the Pushkin poem upon which Tchaikovsky based
his own opera Eugene Onegin. The twist, however, is
that none of the music that Kurt-Heinz Stolze arranged for Cranko
and his Stuttgart company comes from the opera itself. A great deal of it is in fact
orchestrated from works for solo piano – the Three pieces
op.9, the Six pieces op.19, The Seasons op.37b,
the Six pieces op.51 and an unnumbered Impromptu.
We also hear orchestral passages derived from the more familiar
orchestral showpiece Francesca da Rimini, the less well
known opera Cherevichki (The Slippers) and a rarely heard
duet scene from Romeo and Juliet that was completed by
Taneyev after Tchaikovsky’s death.
In an age where the pianoforte was a ubiquitous piece of furniture
in middle class households, Tchaikovsky was aiming his solo
works at a domestic audience. As such they were deliberately
made less taxing than something that he might have written for
professional pianists – and in truth, therefore, they are rather
less interesting. Nonetheless, as orchestrated here I imagine
that they would underscore quite effectively the on-stage action,
even though I grew quite tired of the rather too frequently
repeated February - from the mis-named The Seasons,
a sequence of twelve pieces that would be more appropriately
entitled The Months. Meanwhile, the Francesca da
Rimini and Cherevichki music is, thanks to its origins,
inherently more dramatic and adds substantial extra texture
and drama to the ballet.
Whether, however, the score is of sufficient interest to anyone who
has not seen the ballet itself – and hence to justify a stand-alone
CD like this - is something of a moot point. To be blunt, is
this orchestrated score, without the ability to watch the action
on stage, worth listening to as music?
In composing for the stage, Tchaikovsky was especially sensitive
to the requirements of the drama being portrayed: the exquisite
balance of light and shade and his expert control and manipulation
of the audience’s emotions. These are important factors in explaining
the long-lived popularity of his three great ballets. But much
of the music that we have here is not inherently dramatic –
using the word in its widest sense – and has defeated several
other attempts to bring it successfully to a wider public.
Take The Seasons, for example. Just looking along my
own shelves, I find that renowned Soviet conductor Alexander
Gauk arranged it for orchestra (recorded by the USSR State Academy
Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov on Audiophile Classics 101.512).
More recently, Peter Breiner rewrote the piece for violin and
orchestra - Takako Nishizaki is accompanied by the Queensland
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner on Naxos 8.553510. In spite of such attempts, however, The Seasons has
remained obstinately on, at best, the listening public’s Tchaikovsky
“C” list. The same is true of much of the rest of the music
here. In the case of all those piano pieces, after all, we
know that they were written by Tchaikovsky to tax the fingers
– not the heart.
The appeal, then, of this CD will be primarily to anyone who has
seen Cranko’s ballet and who wants a permanent memento. I can
easily believe that, in conjunction with a powerfully portrayed
drama on stage, this music would be quite effective. Certainly,
I have no reason to question the Stuttgart Ballet’s current
Director Reid Anderson when, in a brief booklet note, he writes
that “For years an enthusiastic public around the world has
been asking for a recording of Onegin”. Whether the
general classical CD buying public has been doing the same,
however, may well be a different matter entirely.