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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Sleeping Beauty - ballet in three acts and a prologue, op.66 (1890) [169:42]
A. Lyubimov (oboe); V. Sokolov (clarinet); G. Fridgeym (violin); F. Luzanov (cello); N. Tolstaya (harp)
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1980, venue not specified
MELODIYA MELCD1002243 [3 CDs: 169:42]

This year, as this set's cover indicates, marks the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the “All-Union Gramophone Record Firm of the USSR Ministry of Culture Melodiya” - or simply Melodiya, as it has thankfully become better known. Like all leading artists who conformed politically and socially in order to thrive in the Soviet Union, Evgeny Svetlanov made many recordings for that company over the years. This particular one seems to have been selected for re-release as part of Melodiya's corporate birthday celebration.
The Svetlanov discography is something of a mess, consisting of a bewildering variety of individual releases and incomplete or apparently abandoned series on a wide variety of labels. This 1980 recording is, I assume, the same one that I last encountered as a 1993 Melodiya/BMG Classics set (74321170802). Slight discrepancies of a single second or so in the stated length of individual tracks are explained by the fact that the new version simply rounds any fractional times downwards whereas the older version had rounded them up.
This performance is rather like Marmite. You will either love it or you will hate it, for, on at least two levels, it's a very distinctive and, indeed, polarising account.
In the first place, we need to consider the contribution of the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra. That Melodiya/BMG set of 21 years ago called it simply "The State Symphony Orchestra", but this release now restores its original name. What, however, has been there all along, under whatever banner, is a sound that's as utterly distinctive now as when it was first recorded in 1980.
Here we have a prime example of the way in which Soviet orchestras, long cut off for political reasons from developing western performance practice, went on producing their own very individual, strikingly brass-heavy sound until the fall of communism exposed them to outside influences. While many listeners mourn the abandonment of national orchestras' individual characteristics in favour of blander, "international" ways of playing that make it difficult to tell whether an orchestra hails from Perm, Paris or Pyongyang, others may perhaps find themselves shocked by braying brass that appears to have no concept of subtlety but instead emphasises every musical point with the orchestral equivalent of a fluorescent highlighter pen. In all fairness, however, it is worth pointing out that, putting that particular idiosyncrasy to one side, the orchestral playing in general is of a very high level and the five individually named soloists fully deserve the recognition accorded to them.
In the second place, Svetlanov makes his own distinctive choice in the dilemma that faces every conductor recording a score that was originally and specifically composed to be danced on stage. Should the music be performed as if dancers really are dancing it, thereby making allowances for the physical limitations of the human body when it comes to achievable tempi? On the other hand, should it be played simply for its own sake and invested with a character appropriate to the concert hall rather than the stage?
Svetlanov plants himself firmly in the second camp to give us a performance of the score that detaches itself from its strictly balletic roots. Several of the dances are played so fast that any on-stage performer would surely risk either serious physical injury or a nervous breakdown if attempting to keep up. Were these tempi adopted at a live performance, I would certainly fear for the safety of the Violente fairy (CD1, track 10), as well as that of the prince's much put-upon tutor - even more so given that he's dancing while blindfolded at that point in the story (CD2, track 2). A few other dances are played, on the other hand, so slowly that the performers might well, I imagine, find it impossible to keep their physical balance for the required length of time.
In order to prove my point, it would be good to have a recording of Svetlanov conducting a live and staged performance of Sleeping Beauty to compare with these discs. Yes, I do know that he can be found leading the “Russian Symphonic Orchestra” in a theatrical performance (Decca DVD 074 3139) but, quite bizarrely, that turns out to be a much abbreviated performance by ice skaters - “the world-famous Russian All Stars, under the direction of the Russian Olympic coach Tatiana Tarasova” – and almost certainly represents Svetlanov’s desire to augment his 1994 bank balance rather than his authentic take on Sleeping Beauty as a danced classical ballet.
Other than that version on ice skates, I have never come across a film or even an audio recording that demonstrates the conductor’s musical approach to Sleeping Beauty on stage. We can, however, make a plausible guess as to how he might have approached the task by comparing two versions of The Nutcracker: a video recording of him conducting dancers at the Royal Opera House in 1996 (BBC Opus Arte DVD OA 0827 D) and his 1988 CD set made in the recording studio (Melodiya/BMG Classics 74321170802 also Melodiya MEL CD 10 00409). The result is a conclusive demonstration of how, in many instances, Svetlanov adopts slower speeds in order to allow dancers to perform their on-stage action. At Covent Garden the busy, complex choreography of the battle between the toys and the mice takes a full 4:09 to execute (only 3:17 on the non-dancing CD), the Waltz of the Snowflakes clocks in at 8:09 (to the CD's 7:28) and the Waltz of the Flowers is danced in 8:15 on the stage but played in only 7:01 on disc. A virtuosic number like the Russian dance may take 1:38 when dancers are involved, but is rattled off in a mere 1:02 when the orchestra is left to itself. It is, I think, fair to assume that Svetlanov would have adopted the same approach of exaggerated sprightliness in a studio recording of Sleeping Beauty.
Speedy tempi are not the only means, however, by which he attempts to make Tchaikovsky's score even more ear-catching and impactful than it would have been in the context of a staged ballet performance. Given that we are unable to see the drama, the conductor certainly ensures that we hear it by utilising all the resources at his disposal. He adopts, in particular, a wide dynamic range that, while capturing the finest gossamer "fairy" detail, also encourages that brass section to blow its lungs inside out at the score's many dramatically climactic points. Thankfully, Melodiya's engineering team - often the weak link in the company's earlier recording history - prove skilled enough on this occasion to cope with his requirements.
Let me make it clear that I am not taking a position about the rights and wrongs of the way in which Svetlanov shapes his performance. Valid cases can be made for both (a) focusing the audience's attention in the theatre on the dancers, rather than on the orchestra, and keeping speeds at a danceable level; and (b) adopting different and varying tempi and dynamics in a recording studio so as to offer someone using just their ears and not their eyes a wider range of colour and contrast, as well as pointing up the quality of the music itself as something other than a mere accompaniment to on-stage action.
With those two essential points made, potential purchasers may make their own personal decision. Judged on its own terms, however, this recording is an undoubted success. If you can accept the sound of a typical Soviet-era orchestra – though one recorded in far superior sound that many others were often then accorded – and if Svetlanov’s vividly coloured and vivacious, yet skilfully crafted, approach is the sort of thing that you enjoy, then you need not hesitate in joining the All-Union Gramophone Record Firm of the USSR Ministry of Culture Melodiya’s 50th birthday celebration.
Rob Maynard