This is another welcome release from Eloquence. They have already reissued a number of Ansermet’s orchestral recordings - Borodin
among them - but his version of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella suites
must be a highlight of the series so far (review
). Now it’s the turn of the Tchaikovsky ballets. I have long cherished Ansermet’s Swan Lake
- Decca Eloquence 480 0563 - a genuine classic that also sounds pretty good for its age (1958). His Nutcracker
, recorded the same year, has also been reissued (Decca Eloquence 480 0557).
The original issues were well received 50 years ago but since then the competition has hotted up. I have fond memories of André Previn’s EMI recording - available as part of a 6 CD set - and Mark Ermler’s on the Royal Opera House’s own label (nla). The latter may have plenty of thrust and spectacle, but the aggressive sound rules it out for all but the conductor’s most dedicated fans. No such qualms about Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s live recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which must be at or near the top of the list (BBCL 4091-2). And given his splendid Swan Lake
it’s a shame Charles Dutoit never recorded Sleeping Beauty
with his Montreal band.
First impressions of the Ansermet recording are somewhat mixed. The opening of the Prologue - which prefaces the christening of Princess Aurora and the casting of Carabosse’s spell - sounds constricted and the bass is ill-defined, neither of which is a problem with his Swan Lake
(recorded a year earlier). That said, Ansermet was a man of the theatre, so he does know how to grab the listener’s attention when required. The lovely harp figures in the Entrance of the Fairies (tr. 2) and the Intrada-Adagio
in the Pas de six
(tr. 3) are a case in point; indeed, one soon forgets the sonic limitations when presented with such delights. What a pity, though, that this performance is so variable - the Lilac Fairy’s waltz (tr. 9) is rather leaden - but Ansermet can certainly build a thrilling climax; sample the end of tr. 11, where Carabosse departs, furious at the Lilac Fairy’s intervention.
Act I, set in the Palace Gardens on Aurora’s 16th
birthday, opens with fanfares and music of real sweep and excitement, qualities that Rozhdestvensky and his band capture rather well. Despite the latter recording’s noticeable tape hiss and somewhat distant balance the BBCSO’s percussion department is always thrillingly audible, adding plenty of ceremonial sparkle to the proceedings. By comparison Ansermet may sound a tad routine here, although he does make amends with a beautifully sprung waltz (tr. 13). Still, there is so much more orchestral detail to be heard in the Rozhdestvensky, and there’s weightier bass if you crank up the volume a little.
In The Four Princes (tr. 14) I do admire Ansermet’s virile rhythms, not to mention the gorgeous harp sound. And then there’s the delectable violin solo in Aurora’s Variation (tr. 17). The Finale to Act I (tr. 19) builds to a powerful climax as the young princess pricks her finger on Carabosse’s spindle, a moment spoilt by an inexplicably puny gong stroke. In mitigation Ansermet points up the Lilac Fairy’s contrasting tune more elegantly than most. As the music fades the noise floor on the BBC disc rises, while on the Eloquence recording there’s an unnatural silence. Not a major issue, I suppose, but distracting in both cases.
Act II - and CD 2 - introduces us to the Prince and his entourage. Even though the horns’ opening flourishes are well caught in both recordings it’s Ansermet who is the most polished, especially in the duchesses’ Minuet (tr. 4) and the baronesses’ Gavotte (tr. 5), the latter beautifully pointed. Rozhdestvensky may be less precise here but generally he brings real drive and coherence to a score that can so easily seem like an endless chain of tableaux.
That said, the violin solo in Ansermet’s Vision of Aurora (tr. 10) is simply radiant, the orchestra playing with real passion and sweep. The pizzicato strings in the Coda (tr. 12) and the sensuously phrased Panorama (tr.14) are also beyond reproach; at last this performance is living up to admittedly high expectations, the return of the underwhelming gong in tr. 15 notwithstanding.
The close of Act II, when the Prince finds Aurora and revives her with a kiss, is surely one of the most potent moments in all music, and to be fair both Rozhdestvensky and Ansermet are splendid here. As for the set pieces of Act III - centred on Aurora’s wedding - these must rank as some of the most engaging music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The grand opening march and Polacca (trs. 16 & 17) are scalp-tinglers in both recordings, but there’s an extra glow to Ansermet’s reading at this point. Indeed, the palpable sense of theatre, of an actual living performance, is stronger here than just about anywhere else in this set. As for the Golden Fairy’s waltz (tr. 19) it has all the poise one could wish for, the Silver Fairy’s Polka (tr. 20) phrased and pointed to perfection.
But it’s the slinky Puss-in-Boots and White Cat (tr. 22) who really steal the show. And if you think Ansermet is a bit dour at times this witty little Pas de caractère
comes as a pleasant surprise; ditto the verve in Cinderella’s whirling waltz with the Prince (tr. 24). If anything, the pas de deux
(trs. 30-34) are even finer, Ansermet and the OSR relishing this lovely music. And there’s a real sense of apotheosis in the bite and brilliance of the ballet’s final moments. The percussion has newfound weight and focus, the OSR playing like a band of virtuosos. This is the kind of music-making I remember from their Swan Lake,
and I only wish there was more of it here.
Despite these reservations I simply can’t end on an equivocal note. Yes, Act I may be rather more variable than I’d like, both in terms of performance and sonics, but Acts II and III are much better all round. I would be tempted to think Act I was recorded on an off-day, such are the improvements thereafter. And even allowing for the fact that Rozhdestvensky’s is a live recording I find his performance much more consistent and dramatic than Ansermet’s. But what the latter might lack in sheer intensity he more than makes up for in elegance and sophistication. Ansermet collectors need not hesitate, but Rozhdestvensky should be on your shelves as well.