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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1877)
State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonia 2, Rachmaninov Hall, Moscow
PENTATONE PTC5186640 SACD [2 discs: 151:46]

Pentatone bills this as the 1877 “World Premiere” version of Swan Lake, which it is. But for the sake of someone who might be misled by the “World Premiere” tag here, let me point out this is hardly the first recording of the original. In fact, the 1877 version is the most commonly recorded one, though the 1895 rendition is usually chosen for the stage. The earlier version is clearly the stronger of the two, at least from a musical standpoint, though balletomanes would likely prefer the later account. Dmitry Yablonsky on Naxos and Neeme Järvi on Chandos both made critically praised recordings of the 1877 Swan Lake, but with the inclusion of a pas de deux in Act III; Tchaikovsky was prevailed upon to write it for ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who danced Odette at the world premiere. Arguably, what Jurowski conducts here is probably what Tchaikovsky would prefer (were he alive), since he died before the emendations were made to fashion the later version.

For this recording Pentatone turns to one of its stars, Vladimir Jurowski, who is principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra through the 2020-2021 season and principal conductor of the ensemble on this CD, the State Academic Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”. He is also chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and will become general music director of the Bavarian State Opera beginning with the 2021-2022 season. Though he has conducted a wide variety of music over the years, both in the concert hall and on the operatic stage, he is probably most closely linked to Russian music, Tchaikovsky’s in particular. He has done a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies with the LPO, and is currently involved in a complete set of Prokofiev’s symphonies with this same Russian orchestra. He has made numerous other recordings, and needless to say, is quite a busy fellow.

Earlier in his career, Jurowski struck me as a conductor who was generally insightful and quite dependable, but also sometimes willing to take chances and go his own way. Here, he delivers a well shaped, well executed account of this popular ballet music. Rarely does he do anything that listeners might regard as wayward. His tempos throughout are generally slightly on the brisk side, and his phrasing nearly always accommodates Tchaikovsky’s wide-ranging expressive palette, from the exoticism of the Danse espagnole from Act III (Track 18, CD 2), to the spirited elegance of the Act I Waltz (track 3, CD 1) and the intimate moments, like Act I’s Finale (track 18, CD 1). True, Jurowski’s tempo in the coda of the Act I Pas de deux (track 14, CD 1) may be too fast for most dancers, but he still manages to make it work nicely here. Yablonsky and Rozhdestvensky employ a similar approach in that number, the latter in his 1969 Melodiya recording. While Swan Lake is extremely popular, it is a work in which Tchaikovsky gives you a large portion of dessert and relatively little meat and potatoes. Yet, in Jurowski’s hands the music has greater consequence, a more dramatic character. Indeed, he makes a strong case even for Act III, probably the lightest and least impactful of the four acts.

Jurowski’s cumbersomely named orchestra is actually the modern version of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble which oldtimers like me will remember from their many recordings from the 1960s on the Melodiya/EMI or Melodiya/Angel labels. They perform much better now, especially in their brass playing, and appear to be at or very near world class status. They have Tchaikovsky in their blood in virtually every number. Pentatone’s sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced.

One can certainly find several fine competing versions of this ballet, including the aforementioned Yablonsky and Rozhdestvensky efforts (the latter with dated sound, though). As suggested above, the Järvi version (which I have not heard) is said to be very good too. But Jurowski delivers a spirited and thoroughly idiomatic account in this new Pentatone recording that captures the essence of Tchaikovsky’s delightful score.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dave Billinge


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