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Russian Dances
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake: Suite, Op. 20a (1875-6) [31:10]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Concert Waltz No. 1 in D, Op. 47 (1893) [9:13]
Concert Waltz No. 2 in F, Op. 51 (1894) [8:46]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Golden Age: Ballet Suite, Op. 22 (1929-30) [17:18]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Circus Polka (1942) [3:50]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Kazuki Yamada
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2015
PENTATONE PTC5186557 [70:54]

This is quite an enjoyable program. Kazuki Yamada’s extensive credentials don’t include obvious ballet experience, but the youthful conductor infuses most of the program with an appropriately balletic uplift. The exception is Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, which moves with the weightier tread appropriate to the “young elephant” for which it was composed.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, there is no ‘official’ Swan Lake suite; the anonymous annotator claims the present assemblage “was created several months after the première of the ballet”, but my usually trusty Da Capo Catalog (Da Capo Press, New York, 1996) doesn’t even mention it, or its opus number. It’s a pleasing enough sequence, although it makes no attempt to suggest the ballet’s plot. It includes, perhaps inevitably, the Scène (the recurring movement, with the minor-key oboe theme), the full Act I Valse, and the lyrical, melancholy Pas de deux. Interspersed with these are a number of characteristic dances: pointed, deliberate accounts of the Danse des cygnes and Danse hongroise, and a zippy Danse espagnole, the whole capped by a firm-footed, lively Mazurka.

Glazunov’s two Concert Waltzes are structurally akin to those of the Strauss family, each comprising a series of discrete waltzes, bracketed by an introduction and a coda. Unlike their Viennese analogues, however, Glazunov’s are explicitly not meant for dancing: if the title didn't suggest that, such passages as the sensitive, caressing woodwind episode at 4:12 of the D major would. The music is what usually gets called ‘tuneful’, though, as can happen with Glazunov, the tunes as such don’t actually linger in the mind – merely the impression of tunefulness. Yamada plays them with a nice, easy impulse and grace, though the surges of the codas don’t always quite land together. If Yamada, or his engineers, can’t match the sparkling timbres of Ernest Ansermet’s venerable Decca recording (made with the forebears of the present orchestra) he compensates with an airy lightness, conducting as if the music were an endless string of upbeats.

The conductor has the right ideas in the Age of Gold suite, underlining the hearty, emphatic waltz rhythm in the Introduction’s 3/4 episode, interrupted by a suddenly faster, hammering passage. The broad Adagio flows spaciously, building to a climax like those in the Shostakovich symphonies, oppressive rather than lush, followed by mournful wind solos. In the faster music, however, the woodwinds' runs are, well, ‘runny’ and imprecise, blunting the music’s spiky, sardonic point.

The orchestra is certainly playing well these days – they could sound inconsistent or overtaxed for Ansermet, depending on the day and the repertoire. The strings are unified and graceful; in the first Glazunov waltz, the violins fit the grace notes into their moving phrases elegantly. The woodwinds can shimmer and are pellucidly reproduced. The principal trumpet has a lovely, pillowy tone, which the engineers have captured with depth, though one or two notes in the Tchaikovsky waltz seem questionable. The recorded ambience is unobtrusive, but audibly ‘long’ in the bass, notably in Swan Lake.

I rather enjoyed this, my miscellaneous strictures notwithstanding, so, if the music interests you, don't hesitate.

Stephen Francis Vasta, Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York

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