Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-1876) [153:50]
Nadezhda Tolstaya (harp), Yuri Torchinsky (violin), Yuri Loyevsky (cello), Anatoly Lyubimov (oboe), Vladimir Sokolov (clarinet), Lev Volodin (trumpet)
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Moscow, 1988
MELODIYA MELCD1002223 [3 CDs: 53:35 + 47:35 + 52:40]

The last Swan Lake to come my way was Neeme Järvi’s Chandos account with the Bergen Philharmonic; others raved about it, but for me it was dead in the water. It seems that my old favourites, among them Ernest Ansermet’s classic Decca set with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (reissued on Major Classics), have yet to be supplanted. Admittedly that version is heavily cut – it runs for a mere 83 minutes – but it combines theatrical intensity with remarkably good sound for 1958.

Then there are complete versions from Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique du Montréal (Decca), Mark Ermler and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (originally released on the ROH label, but now available on Sony) and André Previn and the LSO (Warner). John Lanchbery’s Philharmonia recording, slightly abridged to fit on two CDs, is also worth hearing (Classics for Pleasure). The sound quality of these three issues varies somewhat, with Dutoit’s ultra-vivid 1992 recording the best of the bunch.

That’s hardly a comprehensive list – according to ArkivMusic there are at least 57 available sets – but it does represent a broad spectrum of performing traditions and more than three decades of recorded sound. I would have been very content with this trio, but that was before I chanced upon Svetlanov's Melodiya account. Given that conductor’s unique and authoritative way with so much Russian repertoire this set promised to be rather special. Indeed, it was First Choice in BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library in April 2015. Happily, audio samples indicated the recording – made in 1988 – was pretty impressive as well.

Act 1 gets off to a glorious start; Svetlanov makes the Introduction seem nervier than usual and in the ensuing Allegro giusto the percussion and brass have a powerful presence that bodes well for what’s to come. Svetlanov is rhythmically alert too, the opening Waltz attractively sprung; not only that, Tchaikovsky’s multi-hued writing is explored to the full, with luminous colours filtering through at every turn. Also, this is a real-world performance, sensibly paced and eminently danceable. Even at this early stage it’s clear this conductor isn’t one to overdrive the music. More important, perhaps, he doesn’t busk through it either.

A corollary of this very proportionate, thoroughly musical approach is that the score’s quieter passages – the linking narrative as it were – unfold in a very natural, unflustered way; and although the grander ones are sensibly scaled they’re always drenched in drama. The balances are just fine, but the bass is a little soft-edged at times. I’d far rather that than the aggressive Soviet-era treble and weird perspectives one associates with Melodiya recordings of old. Nadezhda Tolstaya's harp playing – especially at the start of the Pas de trois – is very well caught; ditto the refined string sound and velvety woodwinds.

What a delight it is to be reminded that Swan Lake is a veritable daisy chain of lovely tunes and even lovelier interludes. The real pleasure, though, is hearing Svetlanov at his affable and engaging best; every change of mood or pace is seamlessly managed, and each number has its own distinct character. The Coda to the Pas de trois is a case in point: just listen to how the snappy side drum brings a sudden frisson to the mix. Such flourishes are all the more exciting for being framed with sensitivity and a sure sense of style. Forget those fruity, excitable Russian bands of old, for this is playing of rare finesse and feeling. The grateful recording is a bonus.

Svetlanov ensures the Act 1 Pas de deux is wonderfully supple; even better, Yuri Torchinsky’s violin solo in the Andante – Allegro – Molto più mosso is as clear and colourful as one could wish. It certainly isn’t soupy, self-seeking or a mix of the two. Yes, he is too far forward, but that hardly matters when the playing has so much point and personality. And what a fierily executed Coda, very much in the Ansermet mould. By contrast the Pas d’action has real tenderness and the polacca in the Danse des Coupes is deft and dynamic. Everything segues so naturally, and the whole is shaped with a quiet conviction that I’ve only encountered once or twice in the theatre but never on record.

Tolstaya sets the moonlit scene at the start of Act 2, where Siegfried first glimpses the swans and eventually succumbs to the enchanted - and enchanting - Odette. Very quickly Svetlanov draws us into the quickening vortex in a way that the brusque, almost peremptory Järvi fails to do. The Russian brass cut through the orchestra like scythes here, yet they’re mercifully free of edge or old-style excess. As for the Danses des Cygnes it has both glow and grace; not only that, it’s delivered with a singing, ardent line that’s just ravishing. Torchinsky is at his most beguiling here, and Yuri Loyevsky’s cello contributions are most affecting. Also, the brass bring a tingle or three to one's spine in the Pas de quatre.

Here, more than anywhere else in this set, the sense of theatre – one of Ansermet’s greatest strengths – is simply overwhelming. There’s nothing routine or drearily corporate about the playing; it’s feisty when it needs to be, and supremely elegant, too. As always Svetlanov judges the big moments to perfection; just listen to how he makes the music burgeon and billow at Odette’s transformation. The flipside, if you like, is the raunchy start to the palace party in Act 3. In spirit it reminds me of Matthew Bourne’s clubby, neon-lit take on this scene in his own, very individual version of Swan Lake. Even if you're a traditionalist do try and catch it on DVD; it's by far the most inspired of his Tchaikovsky ballets. Adam Cooper's dancing is splendid, too.

Svetlanov's party certainly goes with a swing. For once his trusty steeds seem as if they’re about to bolt, but he reins them in before any damage is done. The royal fanfares – realistically balanced – are thrilling, as are the powerful, punctuating cymbals in the introductory waltz. This is a remarkably visual Swan Lake, not just an orchestral run through. Indeed, the Pas de six found me spellbound in the stalls, eyes riveted on the brightly lit stage. As expected the national and regional dances are dispatched with brio and brilliance; the Hungarian Czardas is as mesmerising as watching a whirligig. Torchinsky’s earthy violin sound in the Danse Russe is as idiomatic as it gets. The Spanish and Neapolitan displays are just as captivating. Incidentally, I could swear a cornet is used in the latter, but the booklet credits Lev Volodin on trumpet.

The public glitter of Act 3 is tinged with private grief. Svetlanov really racks up the tension here, the bass drum thudding into action as if to underline the extent of von Rothbart’s cruel trick. Also, I’ve never heard the trumpets cackle with such devious delight at Act's end. There’s no holding back there, or in the tense and twitchy Entr’acte to Act 4. Ansermet and Lanchbery are especially memorable towards the end, driving the drama towards its dark denouement. Svetlanov is even more compelling, though; clear-headed and far-sighted he’s the master of both detail and structure.

The sense of approaching apotheosis is more palpable than ever, an effect achieved through steady, scrupulous progress rather than synthetic thrills. That’s probably why Svetlanov’s thunderous finale has a transfiguring intensity that few can aspire to, let alone match. Indeed, if this were a theatre the audience would rise as one, sure in the knowledge they'd just witnessed the Swan Lake of a lifetime.

Simply unforgettable; Svetlanov at his considerable best.

Dan Morgan


Support us financially by purchasing this from