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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake Op.20 - Ballet in Four Acts [154:53]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
James Ehnes (violin)
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 18 June and 3-6 December 2012
Reviewed in SACD surround 5.0
CHANDOS CHSA 5124 [81:17 + 73:24]

Neeme Järvi recorded The Sleeping Beauty with these forces in the same year and in the same hall. Indeed the dates given strongly imply that violinist James Ehnes recorded the solo sections of both ballets on the same day:18 June 2012. However the rest of Swan Lake was recorded in December. The same virtues are present in both sets and as I said in my previous review, the sense of dramatic structure and urgent forward motion is captivating. Again the conductor has opted for the most complete and authentic score: the notes refer to "the original score of twenty-nine numbers across four acts" plus "several supplementary numbers provided not long after the 1877 premiere." To contain all these goodies without a break in any of the four acts Chandos have given us one of the longest CDs I have ever encountered. Disc 1 containing Acts 1 and 2 is 81 minutes 17 seconds long whilst the second disc with Acts 3 and 4 is a more normal 73:24. The 24bit/96 kHz mastering results in a truly splendid sound on SACD. How lucky the Bergen Philharmonic has been to work with first BIS and then Chandos to record their repertoire. Both companies seem to care about making the very finest discs. I should note in passing that the late-lamented EMI Classics continued, in these days of hi-res to issue bog-standard CDs of all their output except in Japan, who got, and still get, much better sounding SACD issues of the same repertoire ... but I digress.
The notes by David Nice on the background to the ballet, the story and on each of the twenty-nine numbers, are quite excellent once again. Järvi treats the work seriously. His attention to detail is obvious from the start. He carefully grades the dynamics of the great Act 1 waltz so that it comes over as the masterpiece it is. Tchaikovsky here rises to the heights of Johann Strauss II in composing symphonic dances of the finest quality, but the glorious lyricism and drama of Act 1 is beautifully captured in every other number too. The playing of the Bergen Philharmonic is crisp and powerful as required. The presence, noted above, of James Ehnes to play all the great solos is well worthwhile. This is the only upbeat act in the work because all three remaining acts tell the story of the doomed Odette - a parallel concept to Wagner's Flying Dutchman, having a spell that can only be broken by a sort of love-death pact - No.9, which ends the act, is a sombre introduction to her character.
Järvi always chooses apt tempi and he really has the music of Act 2 swinging along beautifully. He also handles the transitions within numbers with subtlety, for example No.11, the second Scène of this act. The sound of Ehnes' muted violin in the great Pas d'action (No.13/V) is very well handled without undue spotlighting of the soloist in the sound-picture. It takes little imagination to see the dancers in this evocative performance. Act 3 is the longest and contains most of the character pieces that are an essential part of ballet as a genre. Järvi and his Bergen players generate real momentum here and again the luxury casting of James Ehnes pays off with the absolute security and purity of sound of his playing in the Danse Russe. Tchaikovsky wisely makes the dances for the six rejected princesses less interesting than those for Odette's evil alter ego, Odile. That Siegfried is interested in her makes dramatic sense and thus the final Scène has all the more impact. A glamorous waltz precedes Odette's frantic appearance at the window as she sees betrayal. The trumpets bray threateningly, joined by the remaining brass and drums to close the act. The brief final act starts with an Entr'acte with harp which sounds beautifully delicate in this SACD recording. The Dance of the Little Swans gives the BPO a chance to show off their lovely string sonority as well as that of the wind choir. This is another first class ballet release. Presumably The Nutcracker will follow.
Dave Billinge
Previous review: Dan Morgan