Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
The Sleeping Beauty (1889) [156:25]
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. Studio No.1, Abbey Road, London, April–June 1974
EMI CLASSICS 50999 9 67689 2 [77:50 + 78:35]
I really did have to do a double-take when I saw the original recording date
of 1974 for this classic set. Can it truly be more than 35 years since it was
recorded? At the time the listing of Previn and the LSO on the front of any disc
was pretty much the equivalent of a quality assurance mark. Add to that the dream
production team of the Christophers – Parker and Bishop, some great recording venues – Abbey Road or the Kingsway Hall and it is not hard to see why these performances have maintained their positions in the catalogues for so many years. At the risk of going all dewy-eyed and nostalgic I have to say that their recorded legacy is as fine artistically and technically as any I can think of at this time.
We now benefit from these performances at bargain price but I do have to question quite why EMI feel the necessity to repackage and re-release them again. I am also curious to know why in the repackaging they have chosen to omit the definite article “the” from the title on the cover and the discs! This version of The Sleeping Beauty is still available in a 6-disc box of the three Tchaikovsky ballets performed by the same team and also is readily available ‘as is’ (although with different track divisions I think) on the web as part of EMI’s “Gemini” series. Likewise, so long is their presence in the catalogue that any detailed critical analysis is superfluous. Some general observations though might be of benefit to a collector possibly tempted by this set for the first time. Conductors of Tchaikovsky ballet scores tend to fall into one of two categories – those who emphasise the symphonic aspects of the score and those who emphasise the balletic. In crudely generalised terms the latter opt for steadier “danceable” tempi and more dramatic effects in the big set-piece scenes. Previn is of the symphonic mould which overall is the approach I personally prefer. This is, after all, one of Tchaikovsky’s most extended scores regardless of genre and the main way in which he sustains interest musically is by the underlying symphonic structure allied to his unique melodic gift. Away from the character dances The Sleeping Beauty has extended symphonic sequences quite unlike any other ballet I can name. The famous Rose Adagio [CD1 track 17] is over six minutes long and is one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest melodic inspirations. The engineering here is superb – Parker and Bishop really did know how to achieve instrumental detail without sacrificing an overall orchestral blend. Previn’s pacing is superb – the moment when the massed cellos sail over the rest of the orchestra moves me every time I hear it. And what an orchestra the LSO was then – John Brown and Douglas Cummings as listed string soloists are magnificent but then so are their colleagues throughout the wind and brass. The LSO today is undoubtedly a fine orchestra but in the early 1970s this was a superb ensemble. There are occasional surprises – the famous Waltz – Act I No.6 (track 15) is performed at a very stately tempo which doesn’t quite work for me as it lacks the giddy intoxicating swirl this music surely demands. Overall, however I find Previn’s interpretation wholly compelling.
Packaging is as minimal as one might expect in this type of cut-down re-release. There is a brief synopsis of the piece with certain details in the music almost arbitrarily mentioned but no history to the work itself or its place within Tchaikovsky’s output. I think this is skimping and a shame – the performance deserves better presentation than it receives here. Of the original engineering I have nothing but praise (the minimal analogue hiss is a small price to pay) but I am less easy about the digital remastering. EMI seem to be using the same 1993 remastering here as in previous incarnations. As was so often the case there is a distinct sense of the upper frequencies being spotlight and the bass ones dried out. Certainly there is not the resonant bloom that one expects of Abbey Road Studio 1. Also, there is a thorny issue of completeness. This is not quite a complete The Sleeping Beauty. Both discs come in at around the 78 minute mark so it can be seen that fitting any extra music onto them would be all but impossible. It has resulted (as before in the 2 disc version of this set) in two movements – Nos. 27 and 29 being omitted. Objectively, one has to say this is not a massive loss the cut music being pleasant divertissement music within the final act wedding. But as a collector I would want complete to be complete. Previn’s direct competitor in the double disc bargain stakes is Antal Dorati on Phillips with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Again this is a superb version but to fit onto the 2 discs the Entr’acte No.18 is omitted (so missing one of the gorgeous violin solos that Previn’s John Brown does so beautifully) which is a greater loss musically than Previn’s. The decision for a collector is clear – for an absolutely full version a third disc is necessary. Andrew Mogrelia on Naxos is at bargain price but I’ve never been able to share the enthusiasm of some for this version – in comparison to Previn or Dorati the quality of playing and engineering is nowhere close. I have a particular affection for Svetlanov’s complete version on Melodiya which has more fire and brimstone in it than a fire and brimstone factory working double time but with subtlety left at the door on the way in.
If forced to choose between the two disc versions I would have to go for Dorati though it would pain me to be without the many glories of Previn and his all-star orchestra. EMI, if you do insist on regularly re-releasing this performance I do feel a spruced up re-mastering is what it richly deserves.
Previn adopts the symphonic approach ... see Full Review