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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake ballet (1876) [83:17]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, October-November 1958
MAJOR CLASSICS M2CD002 [42:41 + 40:36] 

The Nutcracker
ballet (1892) [83:49]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, October 1958
MAJOR CLASSICS M2CD001 [42:35 + 41:14]

Though marketed and presented in identical formats with each cover boasting The Complete Works, in reality these two sets differ significantly from each other. Ernest Ansermet’s Nutcracker is a full version of Tchaikovsky’s score that can be subjected to valid comparison with other recordings. Swan Lake, on the other hand,has been drastically pruned and will be, as such, immediately ruled out of court by some potential purchasers.
 
The severity of the cuts is indicated by looking at the timings of a few other accounts of the full ballet chosen randomly from my shelves. Charles Dutoit brings it in opulently and to universal critical acclaim at 154:01 (Decca 436 212-2). He is closely followed by a trio of idiomatic Russians: Evgeny Svetlanov clocks in at 153:36 (Melodiya 74321170822), Mark Ermler follows at 153:03 (see here) and, some way behind, comes Mikhail Pletnev at 142:52 (review).
 
Ansermet’s selection amounts, though, to a mere 83:17 of music. He jettisons numbers 3, 4, 6 and 9 from Act 1, losing more than 20 minutes in the process; a further 18+ minutes are sacrificed by cutting numbers 16, 19, 20a and 24 from Act 3; and more than 9 minutes of music disappear from Act 4 when numbers 25, 26 and 27 are excised. Only Act 2 emerges relatively unscathed.
 
Having pointed out a potentially fatal defect in the Swan Lake set, it is only fair to observe that there are also, on the other hand, several very positive things to say about both it and its companion Nutcracker. The first is the undoubtedly skill and artistry that Ernest Ansermet brings to the music. His eight years with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1915-1923) had made him acutely conscious of the need to mould ballet scores, even those not originally written for dancing, to the practical requirements - and the capabilities - of real dancers on real theatrical stages. He is not, therefore, one to indulge in flashy displays of orchestral virtuosity for their own sake.
 
Also characteristic of Ansermet’s conducting is the great care he takes to clarify orchestral textures and to uncover what is going on beneath the main melodic line. As the Geneva-based Suisse Romande Orchestra’s founder and, since 1918, music director, he had had four decades in which to mould it to meet his requirements, so that its relatively transparent 1959 string sound was a deliberately engineered means to an artistic end. You will not find the luxuriously upholstered textures of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics here: instead Ansermet offers a keen eye and a dose of cold, sharp and clear Alpine air.
 
The sound quality of these 54 years old recordings also deserves a very positive mention. After signing an exclusive contract with Decca in 1946, Ansermet went on to make something like 300 recordings with his orchestra before he retired in 1967. In almost all cases, the expert engineering team provided sound that was then second to none and has stood the test of time extremely well. Both recordings under consideration here are remarkable for their clarity and warmth and utterly belie their true age.

A number of recent and successful CD reissues on the Australian Eloquence label (see here for details) have demonstrated that Ansermet’s reputation still carries weight. Even taking into account the important caveat about the cuts to Swan Lake, these two budget-priced reissues will only add to that regard and both can be warmly welcomed.
 
Rob Maynard

See also review of The Nutcracker by Dan Morgan