Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Sleeping Beauty – Ballet in a Prologue and Three Acts (1888) [155:10]
James Ehnes (violin); Robert DeMaine (cello); Johannes Wik (harp)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 18-23 June 2012, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
CHANDOS CHSA 5113(2) [77:14 + 77:56]

The Sleeping Beauty is frequently cut, but according to the excellent sleeve-notes, this recording is absolutely complete. It includes, for example, the aristocratic dances in the 1st Tableau of Act 2 and the dance of the Sapphire Fairy, the Pas Berrichon and the Sarabande in Act 3. Stravinsky declared The Sleeping Beauty to be Tchaikovsky's chef d'oeuvre and he was not far wrong, for it demonstrates many of the composer's best musical characteristics: it is tuneful, dramatic, skilfully orchestrated and never dull. The composer himself was 'charmed and delighted beyond all description' by the scenario. 'It suits me perfectly and I ask for nothing more than to set it to music.' When, after just a few weeks, he had finished the composition, he wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck: 'I think, my dear friend, that the music of this ballet will comprise one of my best works'. He did have trouble with the scoring but that was because he wished to use new instrumental combinations. This splendid recording makes it obvious that he, for example, replaces the harp with the piano as an obbligato instrument in the final act. It is sad that his first audience was unimpressed, the Tsar apparently remarked that it was 'very nice' and then haughtily dismissed the composer from his presence! We can relax because this is far more than very nice - it is a superb rendering. Neeme Järvi seems never to put a foot wrong and the Bergen orchestra impresses as much, conducted by him, as it does under its principal conductor Andrew Litton in his many recordings for BIS. The producers have pulled out all the stops and engaged no less a violinist than James Ehnes to play the important violin solos, a strikingly indulgent decision which pays dividends because Ehnes' outstanding technique makes these sections truly memorable. The Grieghallen is obviously a lovely venue because the 5.0 MCH recording has a high degree of reality, not a description I often feel able to use.

Tchaikovsky's score is unusually coherent for a ballet. Of the huge number of compositions to which choreographers regularly work, Tchaikovsky's belong, along with those of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, in the group of musically important creations which succeed in the concert hall as much as in the theatre. For many years my personal reaction to The Sleeping Beauty was somewhat muted. I have a performance by the LSO and André Previn recorded by EMI in 1974 and I have never enjoyed it as much as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. Spending time with this new Chandos set has quite revised my opinion. The sense of dramatic structure and urgent forward motion is captivating. One is even propelled through the rather anti-climactic final act, where there is really no significant action. On stage Act 3 is really just 47 minutes of balletic bravura, properly a Divertissement, but Järvi and the Bergen band continue to treat the score seriously. As Tchaikovsky himself believed, he composed some of his very best music for this ballet, worthy to stand with the Fantasy Overture - Romeo and Juliet, Manfred and the Fifth Symphony. David Nice's sleeve-notes are right to emphasise the importance of the complete score as a significant dramatic masterpiece.

This is a great work in a very fine performance beautifully recorded.

Dave Billinge

Nick Barnard has also listened to this recording with mixed feelings:
Perhaps I am just not attuned to Neeme Järvi’s objective approach to Tchaikovsky these days. Having been far less than engaged by his Symphony cycle in Gothenburg on BIS I had high hopes for this new recording of The Sleeping Beauty in Bergen. After all, his discs of Halvorsen and Svendsen with the same artistic and creative team have shown him to be back to his masterly best. Likewise, the Bergen Philharmonic are proving to be one of the most recorded and consistently fine of the Scandinavian orchestras currently. Discs for BIS – stunning Grieg and Stravinsky and Gershwin, Hyperion – very fine Messiaen and the aforementioned Chandos discs show this to be a top class ensemble. Add the exceptional James Ehnes – luxury casting bringing him in for the three virtuosic violin solos – and I fully expected this to be all but a shoe-in for a favourite version of a much loved work. Instead, time and again I found myself impressed by the sheer quality of the playing and hugely disappointed by the interpretation.
A few preliminaries before trying to get to grips with quite why this set has left me so cold. The Sleeping Beauty is a big work. David Nice’s characteristically fine liner-note, makes the point that rarely is the entire score presented theatrically. This is because in performance it lasts over three exhausting hours for both dancers and musicians and the technical demands onstage and in the pit are equally immense. If completeness on the stage is hard to achieve it seems much more of a loss to cut any of Tchaikovsky’s miraculous score in the recording studio. In turn this presents recording companies with a dilemma – for the vast majority of performances a complete version goes over the 160 minute limit of a pair of compact discs but using a third seems profligate. The trade-off often chosen is judicious cutting of the score. Hence the excellent Previn/LSO and also the impressive Lanchbery/Philharmonia sets both on EMI and the famous Dorati/Concertgebouw Phillips sets are squeezed onto a bargain pair of discs with certain movements cut. Dorati’s magnificent version was originally released in a ‘full’ 3 disc version. Bonynge with the National PO on Decca get around this by putting the three great Tchaikovsky ballets into a 6-disc box with Sleeping Beauty using up the ‘spare’ room on the second disc of The Nutcracker. Svetlanov in his characteristically no-holds-barred set with his beloved USSR SO is on three discs. Which leaves, aside from this new set, only one other I know that manages to accommodate the entire score uncut onto a pair of discs – Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra on DG. I must admit my reaction to that much-praised set is not as wonder-filled as some; but at its best it is very fine. Not entirely unlinked to a question of pace is that of conceptual approach. There are two basic approaches to this score – the symphonic and the balletic. The former emphasises the extraordinary musical structure Tchaikovsky imposed on the work with use of linking themes and keys. Quite often this favours a more thrustingly dynamic, fluid approach to tempo which would not help dancers in the theatre. The balletic line often produces more measured results which can be seen as underplaying the extremes of Tchaikovsky’s emotional writing. Not surprisingly, John Lanchbery of the conductors mentioned above is a past-master of the latter style but he proves beyond doubt that this score can be both balletic and exciting. In this he is helped by a full-throated Philharmonia and an exciting but slightly harsh early digital recording. If only he had recorded the complete score it would be a very serious contender.
I do not intend to go through the score with a stopwatch – with a work of such length and so many movements any performance will be a patchwork of ‘slower-than’ and ‘faster-than’ sequences. Järvi earned his spurs with a reputation for full-blooded interpretations so it would be surprising if more of the same were not present here. Indeed, many of the faster character dances and Scenes benefit from just such an approach. For me where he fails without exception is by not allowing the slower music any repose. Tchaikovsky’s miraculous melodic gift needs space into which it can expand. Take the very opening – a thrilling call to arms as exciting as any in the entire Classical Ballet repertoire – Järvi is everything you could wish but by the Andantino, less than a minute in, where is the pained rapture, the gentle ecstasy of yet another of Tchaikovsky’s great melodies? Järvi’s tempo is prosaic, the phrasing mundane. It is that juxtaposition of the energetic to the ecstatic that time and again in this score ratchets the emotional temperature ever higher. It must be reiterated that the Bergen players are fully able to deal with every challenge Järvi and Tchaikovsky throw at them. Indeed the clarity and precision of the wind and string playing is a delight. Listen to the closing Finale and Apotheosis – really awkward passage-work for the strings dispatched with ease and accuracy. Yet for all the precision I feel the playing lacks coherent direction; too often musical phrases are allowed to follow a basic contour without having a real character imposed on them.
The great Rose Adagio is a major disappointment – the main section is marked Adagio maestoso – to my mind, and it would seem just about all of the other interpreters mentioned above, this implies a pulse of the six quaver/eighth notes per bar. This puts huge technical demands on both players and dancers to sustain this glorious music. Järvi conducts in an almost lilting 2-feel, much easier to perform for sure but the rapture is wholly absent. Another curio in this movement. The harp solos on this recording are played by Johannes Wik. They are superbly played and very well recorded … but he doesn’t always play what I have in my score. I have the 2 volume Moscow State Publishers edition of this score which all of the other conductors follow too it seems. Svetlanov’s harpist also uses a different cadenza before the Rose Adagio. There might well be some performing tradition or precedence that Wik is following but in the context here [and also before No.15 Pas d’Action in Act II] I find it out of place to perform something that Tchaikovsky did not write – and if you must depart from the text it would be good to know why. Especially since Wik’s cadenza is stylistically quite different from the music surrounding it – there is a feel of a Debussian arabesque rather than a Tchaikovsky fairy-tale. The deeper into the score we go and to my ear a general pattern emerges. Järvi seems more at ease in the dramatic scene-setting sequences; the casting of the spell and the creation of the thorn forest and also the numerous dances especially in the closing Act – especially the fairy and Pantomime character dances. There’s a wonderfully swaggering Polacca in Act III [track 11 CD 2] that embodies Järvi at his flashing-eyed best. Conversely, many of the short bonne-bouche variations and dances fail to smile or charm. For example; Canari qui chante [Var.IV of the Act 1 Pas de Six –CD1 track 9] is sped through as a piccolo exercise with all of the subtlety of the orchestration lost.
As such, that is not a problem since with so many short sections – there are 65 tracks across the two CDs - there will always be moments that appeal more than others. However the work’s beating heart lies in the great adagios and here Järvi seems unwilling to embrace their emotional potential to the maximum. Take the Pas de Deux [track 29 CD 2] – one cannot fault the playing or engineering but where is the cathartic release when the melody returns sung by the unison violins around the three minute mark? In isolation, because this is well achieved technically it all sounds perfectly good. When compared to any of the above versions it is lacking – even Dorati who alone among the versions mentioned above is significantly quicker than here. There is another facet of Tchaikovsky’s compositional style which can be judged a strength or weakness depending upon your point of view. In all his works, but especially the ballets, there are extended passages of musical/sequential “filling”. This is where a simple motif or chord sequence is often elaborated by repetition and movement through keys. In the stage works this was often due to the practical necessity of getting a lot of people on or off stage or changing a scene. My belief is that part of Tchaikovsky’s genius was to take such potentially unappealing sequences and generate real drama from the slow-burn build-up of musical tension until the point of tumultuous arrival. In the right hands these sequences of sequences are deliciously anticipatory – in others its just padding. To often this performance smacks of the latter.
A mention here for the two featured soloists – violinist James Ehnes and cellist Robert DeMaine. Ehnes is every bit as fine as one would expect of one of the great violinists of the age. Indeed, if I were to suggest a reason to hear this version it would be to hear Ehnes’ contribution – but given that this amounts to less than ten minutes time “on-stage” in a 155 minute work that would represent a very specialist purchase. Robert DeMaine plays his solo – the Act II Pas d’Action previously mentioned – very well too and both soloists benefit from a nicely natural recorded perspective. Which brings me back to the conclusion that Järvi has chosen to move away from the heart-on-sleeve style of some years back which in many ways made his reputation as a conductor. He seems now to favour a fleet dry-eyed approach. A conductor of his skill and experience chooses with extraordinary care exactly how his interpretations are crafted. If this sounds fleet [not just fast] and emotionally under-engaged then that must be how he now feels the score works best. Perhaps I am too used to a more emotional interpretation but if that is the case it is because all of the other versions I know and love of this masterly score favour that approach too.
The Chandos recording is one of their hybrid Super Audio CDs recorded in 24 bit 5.0 channel surround sound. I listened in the standard format and fine though it is my suspicion is that it would sound better in the surround format. For all its stated compatibility my suspicion is that the engineering is optimised for the surround format and that in standard stereo it lacks the last degree of bite and detail such discs used to have in two-channel only days. That being said it copes extremely well with the complexities of Tchaikovsky’s fullest score. The orchestral piano writing and the addition of cornets as well as trumpets to an already full romantic orchestra causes the Chandos production team no headaches at all. Listen to how comfortably the closing Apotheosis expands from a rather muted opening to a rafter-shaking conclusion – again impressive until direct musical comparisons are made – Previn’s LSO swaggeringly opulent here to far greater effect. If I miss anything at all it is the sense that the players really are giving their all at one or two key climaxes in the work. For sure too many fffs rather pall after a while but conversely any sense of something left in the tank emotionally or dynamically in music like this is equally wrong – Tchaikovsky is nothing if not all passion spent.
The set is neatly presented in a slim double case enclosed in a cardboard sleeve with the slightly fatter than usual liner booklet accommodated by the sleeve. As mentioned the liner benefits greatly from an interesting note and detailed movement by movement synopsis from David Nice. The rest of the booklet is in the standard Chandos format – three languages, biographies and some artist photographs. Chandos are intending to release all three of the Tchaikovsky ballets using this group of performers but I am not sure this current issue adds greatly to our knowledge and appreciation of this great work – finer and more engaging versions exist elsewhere.
Nick Barnard
I am not sure this current issue adds greatly to our knowledge and appreciation of this great work – finer and more engaging versions exist elsewhere.