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Russian Ballets
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake (excerpts), Op. 20 [29:33]
Sleeping Beauty (excerpts), Op. 66 [22:13]
The Nutcracker (excerpts), Op. 71 [24:50]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella – Suite No. 1, Op. 107 [26:54]
The Stone Flower – Suite No. 1, Op. 126 “Wedding Suite” [19:38]
Romeo and Juliet – Suite No. 2, Op. 64 [32:08]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Gayaneh – Ballet Suite [31:02]
Spartacus – Ballet Suite [31:49]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicolae Moldoveanu (Swan Lake), Barry Wordsworth (Sleeping Beauty), David Maninov (Nutcracker); Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra/Arnold Katz (Prokofiev); Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov (Khachaturian)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 15-16 April 1995 (Nutcracker); Cadogan Hall, London, 13-15 July 2009 (Swan Lake), 31 May – 2 June 2010 (Sleeping Beauty); No location given, June 1997 (Prokofiev); Moscow, 3-6 January 2000 (Khachaturian)
Booklet notes in English
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95409 [79:09 + 78:52 + 62:59]

It’s hard not be curious about the history and evolving business model of Brilliant Classics. Their Wikipedia entry gives some useful insights, but operationally there appear to be two streams: reissued recordings from other producers, and original productions of their own. The latter seem increasingly to be part of their modus operandi, and one wonders whether the former provide the funding and cash flow to support the ‘risky business’ of the new. I’ve recently reviewed one of Brilliant’s own productions, but the current set is of the other kind, with material licensed from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Ltd., and the National Music Publishers of the Russian Federation.

The first CD contains excerpts from the set of the three complete Tchaikovsky ballets already available on Brilliant (94949), which in turn appear individually on the RPO’s own label as Swan Lake (SP 026), The Sleeping Beauty (SP 030), and The Nutcracker (SP 006 - review). The recordings are from quite disparate dates – 1995 for the Nutcracker and 2009/10 for the other two. The RPO has been ‘doing its own thing’ for some time now, allegedly the first orchestra to start its own label, in 1986. As well, there were outings for the Tring label during the 1990s which produced recordings of popular works which have re-surfaced in various guises since. Many of these left the impression of a run-through, but there were exceptions, including Mackerras’s Shostakovich Fifth and Handley’s Holst Planets on Tring, and Previn’s scintillating re-make of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast on the RPO label, which I’ve always preferred to his earlier EMI take, quite unfazed as I am, unlike other critics, by Benjamin Luxon’s tremulous baritone.

The Tchaikovsky ballet suites here are largely representative of the norm, The Nutcracker most so, while the Swan Lake selections are perhaps not the best beginner’s choice, with only a snatch of that swan theme appearing, in the second excerpt. The RPO sound to be playing with base numbers, some lack of string weight and bloom occasionally apparent. The recordings are crisp and aptly atmospheric, from the Henry Wood Hall in 1995, and the RPO’s new home, the Cadogan Hall, for the later couple. Different conductors oversee each session, but I wouldn’t presume to compare them on the strength of these samples – nothing abnormally good or bad disturbed my equilibrium, though the tellingly feline woodwinds in The Sleeping Beauty’s ‘Pas de caractère’ deserve note. Alas, there are two production faults in The Nutcracker excerpts: ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ and ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ are reversed in order on the CD; and more grievously, the ‘Arabian Dance’ mis-tracks, with no visible CD defect, indicating most likely a fault in the digitised source - this I replicated on several players. I would probably care more, were these not the kind of performances dispatched with an all-purpose professionalism that somehow leaves me with an indifference matched, I suspect, by that of the players as they pack up to go home or on to their next engagement.

The Prokofiev and Khachaturian ballet suites are also available on separate Brilliant CDs (9254 and 9256, respectively), but the current set obviously has ‘job lot’ appeal if you have none of these other releases. It’s good that the Prokofiev suites are ordered to give first exposure to the less well-known pair, before the grim but exhilarating familiarity of Romeo and Juliet bursts upon you. The Cinderella excerpts are very well presented indeed - plaudits to the conductor, orchestra and sound engineers – deftly animated playing brings the fairy tale to life in all its colour and humour and, when things turn ominous, its not-too-threatening malice. The ‘Midnight’ scene’s frantically ticking clock is hugely effective, although I wonder why a snare drum was chosen instead of a bell to strike in the fateful hour. The same felicitous delivery marks the ‘Stone Flower’ suite, also bringing out the work’s melodiousness and at times quite luscious beauty. The awkward jollity of the final ‘Wedding Dance’ provides an effective segue to the mood-changing Act III Introduction which opens the Romeo and Juliet second suite. Here, of course, Arnold Katz and his Novosibirsk orchestra are among sterner competition, but on this showing, nothing that should be feared. The finely delineated playing and recording may not be as sumptuous as some for this emotionally charged music, but keeps the focus on its balletic, danceable reality. Indeed, had I heard pit-orchestra playing of this standard and intensity, with choreography to match, I would have had the most wonderful night out.

The Khachaturian suites have two very considerable performance advantages: a conductor who is among the elite of the late twentieth century, and an orchestra which by its very nature is completely at home in this repertoire. The Gayaneh suite can often be made to sound like cheap populism, but not in Evgeny Svetlanov’s hands. His fabled ear for detail and subtle colour brings a sophistication to this score that, even if it sounds less balletic, gains immensely as a listening experience. ‘Aysha’s dance’ is sinuous and slyly seductive, while the Bolshoi orchestra’s delicate, finely textured playing brings to ‘Gayaneh’s Adagio’ the otherworldliness that made it such an inspired choice for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If the ‘Sabre Dance’ has worn out its welcome for you as much as it has for me, then a comfort break or fast-forward is permitted! Spartacus receives much the same nuanced and knowing regard, Svetlanov the refined musical sensualist tapping every mood and feeling with the most subtle of crescendos and decrescendos, witness the dances of the Nymphs and the Gaditan Maidens, while in the Onedin Line moment, otherwise the balletic consummation of Spartacus and Phrygia, he beautifully navigates its tender and blissful extremes.

Down to earth, the set comes in an old-style multi-CD jewel case, which may place further strain on your storage space. The outer packaging has predictable, but unattributed, Degas artwork. The enclosed booklet, with the same artwork, is in English only, but the notes are quite comprehensive and informative. Apart from the two production issues mentioned for the Nutcracker excerpts, which you may or may not consider fatal, the pluses for me strongly outweigh the minuses for this set, particularly considering the Russian contributions. As a collection of these classic ballet suites, it’s about as good as you’re likely to find.

Des Hutchinson



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