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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake (1876), highlights
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 28-29 June 1962
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 8907 [59:11]

The invariably enterprising Eloquence label has done an intriguing thing here. Nearly a decade ago it trawled the Decca archives to re-release a long-acclaimed 1961 selection of Swan Lake excerpts played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari (Decca Eloquence 442 9032). My colleague Christopher Howell rated it at the time as "a great disc" (review) and, in the course of subsequently reviewing André Previn's complete recording of the ballet, even ventured the suggestion that "I'm not sure you wouldn't do better to have 46 minutes of this music under Fistoulari than the whole thing under Previn" (review). Eloquence has now supplemented that characterful earlier release with another disc that presents much the same music - but this time originating from a 1962 Philips recording made by Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra.

While the decision to include both Fistoulari's 1961 and Monteux's 1962 recordings in the same catalogue can easily be justified on artistic grounds, it might also be considered a case of commercially reckless overkill. But, in practice, the differences between the two discs are sufficiently interesting that many lovers of Tchaikovsky's score are, I suspect, likely to want both. A few detailed comparisons will, I think, help to throw some useful light on this newly re-released Monteux account.

Having spent some of their early careers with the Ballets Russes company, both conductors were, of course, familiar with the requirements of directing ballet performances in the theatre. Monteux had famously - indeed, at the time notoriously - conducted a number of Stravinsky premieres for Diaghilev just before the First World War, while twenty years later Fistoulari was directing performances when the company's artistic direction was in the hands of Léonide Massine. These days, however, Monteux is certainly the much better remembered of the two. That's not only because he exhibited artistry and technical skills of the highest order but because he left a far more wide-ranging recorded legacy. Fistoulari, on the other hand, made far fewer discs and any surviving reputation that he has is primarily fostered by balletomanes who treasure a handful of yet unsurpassed classic recordings.

Judging from the fact that Fistoulari's selection of Tchaikovsky's score clocks in at just 46:10 while Monteux offers a significantly more generous 59:11, you might reasonably assume that the latter simply includes more of the music. To some extent that's true. While Fistoulari does perform at least a handful of quite substantial numbers that Monteux chooses to omit - the Introduction (moderato assai), 11 (scene) and 24 (scene) - the scales tip decidedly in the other direction overall as only the Frenchman chooses to include 5a (tempo di valse), 5c (tempo di valse), 5d (allegro molto vivace), 7 (sujet), 13a (tempo di valse), 13f (tempo di valse), 17 (scene), 21 (Spanish dance) and 23 (mazurka).

In practice, however, the undeniable discrepancy between the two discs' overall timings owes almost as much to Fistoulari's consistently brisker tempi. That can be clearly demonstrated in no less than seven of the eight numbers that are common to both discs. In 1 (scene), the difference is just a matter of seconds with Fistoulari (F) on 2:58 and Monteux (M) on 3:02. But thereafter we can observe more marked contrasts in 2 (valse: F 4:28, M 5:25), 10 (scene: F 2:50, M 2:58), 13d (allegro moderato: F 1:19, M 1:32), 13e (andante: F 6:14, M 6:36), 27 (dance of the little swans: F 3:40, M 4:48) and 29 (finale: F 6:01, M 7:10). In the single instance when Monteux turns out to be rather sprightlier, it's only by a single second in number 20 (Hungarian dance: F 2:46, M 2:45). Small though some of these individual discrepancies are, taken together they do mount up.

Incidentally, while picking out individual numbers it's worth noting that neither conductor adheres absolutely exactly to the published order of the score. In fact, both interpolate material from the first Act into Act 3, though while Fistoulari inserts merely 5b (andante) after number 20 (Hungarian dance), Monteux more radically relocates the complete 5a/5b/5c/5d Act 1 pas de deux sequence wholesale to a point following number 23 (mazurka). While the strictest purists may be outraged, I think that most listeners, if they notice such changes at all, will accept that in the context of such arranged abridgements they make dramatic and musical sense.

The comparison with the Fistoulari disc highlights what is perhaps the key characteristic of Monteux's performance: those consistently longer timings for individual numbers. This Swan Lake is grand, stately, and large scale in conception. It’s less a village pond than a full scale Caspian Sea, navigated in the stately fashion of some Ottoman kapudan pasha's flagship by a particularly lush-sounding and well-upholstered London Symphony Orchestra. As such, however, at several key moments it does sacrifice some of the score's essential theatricality and dramatic power.

We detect that loss early on when, after the brief pizzicato introduction to the famous Act 1 number 2 valse, Monteux brings in the main theme at a tempo that's surely far too slow if we're imagining the prince's youthful entourage gaily prancing about at their picnic. As the partying reaches its climax just before Siegfried's first sighting of the swans, number 10 danse des coupes is similarly affected by an air of sluggishness that suggests that maybe the disapprovingly prim and proper Queen Mother is still on stage - which, of course, at that point she certainly isn't. Moving right on to the final climax to Act 3, the same phenomenon is in evidence. At that point Tchaikovsky's music is ramping up the dramatic tension, maintaining the audience's visceral excitement for as long as possible and postponing the final emotional catharsis - encompassing the defeat of Rothbart and Siegfried's drowning - until very, very late in the day. Monteux, however, chooses to adopt a particularly slow, portentous - and, I would imagine, for all but the most accomplished artists undanceable - tempo and introduces it at a point (number 29, 2:46) where it deflates the composer's carefully built up emotional tension far too early. His decision to play the finale in that fashion suggests that he saw this recording as very much one constructed in the studio for a domestic audience, rather than as a record of what one might actually have heard during a staged performance in a theatre. Perceived in that manner, these excerpts are best considered as individually crafted orchestral showpieces rather than part of a dramatic whole; one can only speculate how significant any differences in conception and approach might have been had Monteux been commissioned to record the ballet in full.

Returning to that other Eloquence performance for the sake of comparison, I'd say that Monteux's account emerges as a carefully prepared and beautifully played orchestral suite that tends to distances itself from its theatrical origins, while the Fistoulari recording acknowledges its source more obviously in its consistently displayed drive and energy. The first will, I think, appeal more to those who enjoy Monteux's typically precise and elegant approach. Meanwhile, true balletomanes will delight in the air of theatrical authenticity that's so effectively communicated by the second.

Fortunately, the Philips engineers of the early 1960s were clearly an accomplished team, ceding no ground at all to their Decca counterparts who had produced equally first class sound for the Fistoulari disc just the year before. Assisted by the flattering acoustics of Walthamstow Assembly Rooms, a justifiably popular recording venue at the time, they have conjured up an appropriately warm yet immediate sound that enhances Monteux's performance even further. There are countless instances where felicitous detail is uncovered, sometimes, I must concede, as a beneficial result of those cautious tempi of which I have been somewhat critical above.

Of course, Swan Lake - Tchaikovsky's first attempt at a full length dance composition and not his most technically accomplished of the three - has its longueurs and this disc would make a fine choice for those uninterested in acquiring the complete ballet. Taken in isolation, Monteux's account can certainly be said to be both distinctive and worth hearing.

For the conductor's many admirers, it will also offer another welcome demonstration of the strong professional and personal connection that he forged with the London Symphony Orchestra during the Indian summer of his long and distinguished career. The affectionate nature of that link was, of course, well demonstrated by his famous tongue-in-cheek request, at the ripe old age of 86, for a new 25 years contract as principal conductor with an option to renew for a further 25 years after that.

More seriously, hindsight gives us the opportunity to see that the orchestra, after a greatly troubled few years of vicious internal strife and major changes in personnel, was transformed by the high technical and artistic goals that Monteux set for it in the early 1960s (for a brief but fascinating account, refer to Richard Morrison’s authoritative Orchestra - the LSO: a century of triumph and turbulence [London, 2004], chapter 7 - especially pp.134-138). Anyone listening to this disc will realise at once that it proves that point quite indisputably.

Rob Maynard



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