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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20: excerpts (1877) [22:35]*
The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66: excerpts (1890) [14:48]+
The Nutcracker, Op. 71: excerpts (1891) [19:39]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, December 2005, *September 2006, +June 2007
AVIE AV2139 [58:02]

Digital downloading of music is becoming increasingly prevalent, but I suspect there'll always be at least a small market for this sort of album. Well-engineered orchestral records, played back through even mid-level stereo components, offer sensual, aesthetic and emotional satisfactions that digital files can't — certainly not when they're heard through earbuds — and that your random YouTube video can't begin to approach.

Avie, with its select artist roster, judiciously chosen repertoire, and attentive engineering, ought to be one of the companies best equipped to offer such material successfully. The results in this instance, however, earn, at best, a mixed grade.

The Swan Lake selection begins promisingly. In the opening Scène, the slightly woolly oboe solo is pleasing. The Act I Waltz has moments of grace and delicacy, though Petrenko's choice to omit the 16-bar repeats in the second "B" section — including the passage with the trumpet solo — leave it sounding slightly misshapen. Attacks are elusively approximate in a way that renders tuttis opaque and blunts the music's power. Even the percussion at the start of the Mazurka is boomy. You start noticing that the conductor, who clearly appreciates the music's quiet moments, lets them go static. His habit of pulling back to unmarked pianos-and-crescendos comes to seem like a mannerism.

Things immediately improve with the taut, bracing Introduction to Sleeping Beauty. The ensuing Lilac Fairy episode again turns inert, but then the performance recovers. Rhythmic address is altogether more alert, and attacks more pointed and precise. In the Pas de quatre, flutes and clarinets tumble cheerfully in the relaxed Entrée, while the scampering woodwinds take the nimble, charming Variation de la Princesse Florine in stride. Even the overfamiliar Waltz, firm and not too fey, sounds fresh.

There is no "official" Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty suite: such suites comprise movements assembled at the discretion of the conductor or the producer. There is an official Nutcracker Suite, catalogued as Opus 71a, but this isn't quite it: Petrenko omits the Arabian Dance, for no obvious reason — there was certainly room on the disc. In any event, the playing remains crisp and clear, save when the horns go mushy at the start of the Waltz of the Flowers, and they're better when the theme returns.

Avie provides its customary, unobtrusively good engineering: in Nutcracker, note the depth with which the soft brass chords of the March register.

Downloaders, who can pick and choose from among the individual tracks, may have an advantage over record collectors here, though the album as a whole is cheaper. Still, all the available digital files are variously "lossy". I didn't locate any FLAC downloads, for example, so, if you want the better-quality sound, you'll need to get the actual CD.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.