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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Anniversary Edition - The Most Popular Ballets and Operas
DOCUMENTS 600223 [10 CDs]

This 10 CD box set has been issued to celebrate the life of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1840. The recordings are all from the 1950s and they are repackaged here complete with reproductions of the original LP covers. This is a bargain box but one downside to the low price — around 10 — is that there is minimal documentation and no librettos for the two operettas.

Ernest Ansermet’s recordings were a cornerstone of the Decca catalogue in the late 1950s and the 1960s. He was a consistent conductor in the recording studio and his catalogue of LPs has always been well respected. In truth though, his Suisse Romande players fall short of the highest international standards. Having said that there is also plenty to enjoy and admire. The recordings of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker included here are also available on the Brilliant Classics and Major Classics budget labels. The complete Nutcracker is scintillating in Ansermet’s hands. It’s brisk, bright and breathless. The music-making lacks some warmth and relaxation but there is no doubt about the adrenalin-rush that is present throughout the ballet and the orchestra plays very spontaneously. Some gear-changes aren’t handled very smoothly and there are some lapses of concentration and ensemble but these moments are few and far between. The cor anglais and clarinet players have distinctly off days. The recording still has tremendous impact with a swirling forwardly-placed harp, clear woodwind solos and - for its age - some rather spectacular stereo. It doesn’t displace Mackerras or Previn but for a refreshing, enjoyable romp it’s well worth hearing. Ansermet’s Swan Lake shares many of the same technical virtues as The Nutcracker and the playing has similar flaws. This isn’t a complete recording, running as it does for 83 minutes. The full score runs for more than 150 minutes. The following are cut in this Decca recording: numbers 3, 4, 6 and 9 from Act 1, numbers 16, 19, 20a and 24 from Act 3 and numbers 25, 26 and 27 from Act 4. Ansermet is very theatrical and less brisk in his approach to the ballet when compared to his Nutcracker. There are some movements where, thank goodness, he lowers the heat and brings moments of relaxation. The playing is committed but also dogged with minor blemishes. The irritatingly late string entry in the waltz really should have been retaken. Decca’s sound is bright and exciting but there is also some wow to be heard in the transfer.

Dorati recorded a number of highly valued LPs for Mercury in the 1950s and 1960s. His Sleeping Beauty is an early mono production from 1955. When stereo appeared at the back end of the 1950s, this version of the complete ballet was soon to become largely overlooked. Whereas Ansermet was a ballet conductor through and through, Dorati treated Sleeping Beauty as an orchestral work in its own right. Some of his chosen tempi are fast and unpractical from the standpoint of the ballet dancers. In terms of orchestral sound there’s no doubting that the music as presented here is exciting and invigorating. The playing of the Minneapolis orchestra is top notch, far superior to the Suisse Romande, but in truth this recording sounds its age. The strings are thin and feathery and the sound has little depth or range. This will really only appeal to Dorati fans.

After the historic sound of Minneapolis it was a pleasant surprise to hear the orchestral introduction from the 1955 Melodiya Eugene Onegin jumping out of the speakers with such depth and clarity. The opening of Act 1 then confirmed, with its excellent vocal quality, that what we have here is a very special recording that completely belies its age. There is a realistic, deep bass sonority and a decent perspective to the sound-stage. Very little allowance has to be made for a recording that approaches western standards. In terms of performance this a splendid Russian production from the Bolshoi with fine orchestral playing and good work from the chorus. The soloists all have an authentic Russian ring. Belov gives us a rich-toned Onegin and Vishnevskaya is in radiant form as Tatiana – the famous Letter Scene is beautifully performed, aided and abetted by a vibrato-laden horn solo. So it’s full marks for this wonderful recording.

Finally we come to the 1954 Melodiya Enchantress conducted with distinction by Samuel Samosud. The recording is slightly rougher than Melodiya’s Eugene Onegin with a boxy string tone, slight distortion at climaxes and the soloists placed very forward indeed. At least it has some impact and the ear soon adjusts to the dated sound. The performance is idiomatic and convincing but this no Eugene Onegin. Despite some inspired patches, some of the music is rather dull and the overall level of inspiration is well short of Tchaikovsky at his best. Samosud and his cast give us a convincing interpretation and it is to be commended. The orchestral playing is lively but scrappy and rushed in places. The same recording is included in Brilliant Classics' Tchaikovsky Edition box.

To summarize: The Nutcracker and Eugene Onegin are the stand-out CDs in this collection. The Sleeping Beauty is of historic importance, Swan Lake is incomplete but nicely presented. We aren’t exactly spoilt for choice in The Enchantress and this is an inexpensive way of getting to know it. This is good value overall.
John Whitmore
The Sleeping Beauty (First Complete Recording) [73:26 + 77:32]
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati (1955)

The Nutcracker (Complete recording) [42:24 + 41:12]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (1958)

Swan Lake (Excerpts) [42:23 + 40:33]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (1959)

Eugene Onegin op. 24 - Opera in three acts (complete recording in Russian) [72:02 + 79:31];
Eugene Belov - Eugene Onegin; Galina Vishnevskaya – Tatiana; Ivan Petrov - Prince Gremin; Sergei Lemeshev – Lensky; Larissa Avdeyeva – Olga; Valentina Petrova – Larina;
Eugena Verbitskaya – Philipyevna; Georgi Pankov – Captain; Igor Mikhailov – Zaretsky;
Andrei Sokolov – Triquet; Nikolai Timchenko - Precentor
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus/Boris Khaikin (1955)

The Enchantress - Opera in four Acts (complete recording in Russian) [79:31 + 79:21]
N. Kiselev - Nikita; Vera Borisenko – Yevpraksiya; Georgy Nelepp – Yury; Aleksey Korolev – Mamyrov; Anna Matyuchina – Nenila; Mikhail Skazin - Ivan Zhuran); Natalya Sokolova – Kuma; A. Tikhonov – Foka; V. Grafova – Polya; Sergey Zladkopevtsev – Balakin; Leonid Khachaturov - Potap; Aleksey Usmanov – Lukash; Gennady Troytsky – Kichiga; Pavel Korobkov – Paysy; Pavel Pontryagin – Kudma
Moscow State Philharmonic and All-Union Radio Large Choir/Samuel Samosud (1954)



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