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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - complete ballet
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1908)
Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky op. 35a
Halesworth Middle School Choir/Christopher Barnett
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Mark Ermler
rec. May 1989, All Saints Church, Tooting, London. DDD
SONY ESSENTIAL MASTERWORKS 88697581242 [47:14 + 43:48]
Sleeping Beauty - complete ballet
Royal Opera House Orchestra/Mark Ermler
rec. December 1989, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London. DDD
SONY ESSENTIAL MASTERWORKS 88697575302 [3 CDs: 72:36 + 47:29 + 52:36]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake - complete ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Mark Ermler
rec. April 1989, All Saints Church, Tooting, London. DDD
SONY ESSENTIAL MASTERWORKS 88697575342 [73:47 + 79:18]
Experience Classicsonline

These three complete ballet sets derive from a series first issued in the late 1980s on the Royal Opera House label. For the record the provenance is: Swan Lake ROH301/03; Sleeping Beauty ROH306/8; Nutcracker ROH304/05. At the time some – maybe all – of these were issued on both LP and cassette.
These recordings remain opulent sounding. They flourish under the Ermler’s linear and vertical craft and his constantly freshening insight. The tempo di valse (CD 2 tr. 2 Swan Lake) shows an unerring ear for the transition from barking fanfare to hurdy-gurdy whirl. Two tracks onwards and Ermler’s apprentice years with Mravinsky show in the monumental tragic horns and trombones abutting propulsively passionate strings accelerated in a way that recalls Evgeny’s blazing and iconic Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony as recorded in London in 1961 with the Leningrad Phil. Ermler’s Nutcracker strikes me as rather hurried in places (Waltz of the Snowflakes) but the children are nicely distanced even if they sound pushed. This set is unique among the three in adding the Arensky Tchaikovsky Variations as a pretty substantial makeweight. Arensky revered Tchaikovsky and his music bears witness to this – no harm in that. The Arensky Variations would go very nicely with the Tchaikovsky Serenade. There’s no doubt it’s a lovely piece. In Sleeping Beauty Ermler brings into sharp focus such neglected wonders as The Fairy of the Songbirds (CD1 tr. 9) with its dazzling music-box tintinnabulation. He is equally adept though with the big set-pieces such as the flowing Waltz (CD1 tr. 15). The brass in all three sets is big and bruisingly immediate so if you like in-your-face then you know where to go. The Apotheosis of Sleeping Beauty is toweringly imperious and at times sounds more like Mussorgsky than Tchaikovsky. The acoustic in each case is accommodating enough to carry the impact without brashness or being too much in your face. The French Horns lap up their opportunities too as in Sleeping Beauty in the Scene with Florimund and the Lilac Fairy (CD2 tr.10). The strings’ sway in Panorama (CD2 tr.15) is so well judged and two tracks later at the start of Tableau 2 Ermler terraces the dynamics with volume and gradation of tension. Speaking of tension you can feel the old Golovanov accelerant at the transition in the Finale of Tableau 2 and in its last pages. Here Ermler is unleashed from the constraints of practically danceable music. Fascinating in CD3 to hear in the Coda (tr.8) yelping brassy recollections of the Capriccio Italien.
Ermler (1932-2002) was born in St Petersburg when it was Leningrad. His teachers at the Conservatoire included Boris Khaikin. He attended Mravinsky’s rehearsals at the Leningrad Philharmonic, conducting them for the first time in 1952. His Bolshoi debut followed in 1957 taking over from an indisposed Nebolsin. He presided over Soviet premieres at the Bolshoi of newly rehabilitated scores by Stravinsky in the 1960s: The Firebird and Petrushka. He fought hard to give the world premiere of Prokofiev's last opera, The Story Of A Real Man. It was recorded by him and that vivid document has since been reissued by Chandos. In 1986 he had deputised for Rozhdestvensky with the LSO in Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. In 1993 he recorded Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. In 1982 he recorded Prokofiev’s War and Peace for Melodiya (MEL CD 1001444) and revived the work in Seattle in 1990. He also recorded Prince Igor (Melodiya MEL CD 1000413). His Boris Godunov can be heard on Regis RRC 3006. Ermler died of a failed kidney at the age of 69 three days after collapsing while rehearsing the Seoul Philharmonic.

These reissues are not generously documented. All three include a slender booklet with track-list and the ballet’s plotline. Two of them (Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty) also provide some background on the music. There’s nothing about the Arensky.
Tchaikovsky’s three great ballets are heard here in readings that embody the grand Soviet traditions but do so within a recording of some sophistication and with an orchestra in which the brass benches deploy instruments without the emery-cloth coarseness of USSR orchestras yet with enough resistant abrasion and power to satisfy. The ROHO here go some way along the same path as Previn’s inspired LSO of the 1970s.
All three of these sets are typically vivid but the finest is Swan Lake.


Rob Barnett



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