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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op.20 (1875/77) Excerpts
Philharmonia Orchestra/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. live Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 3 November 2019. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
SIGNUM SIGCD648 [43:00]

This recording takes us back in two senses. Firstly, it provides for those who want something more than the Suite but not necessarily the whole ballet, something which used to be fairly common on LP, but less so on CD. Unfortunately, it also takes us back to the LP age in terms of playing time, though the price of the download from Hyperion takes care of that (£4.99 in 16-bit lossless, £7.50 in 24-bit). The CD costs around £12.75 or $18.  (Avoid the £22 being asked by one dealer.)

Not only does this recording give short measure, but the selection, whoever it was made by, is rather odd. The Suite, Op.20a, opens with the Scene, Act I, 10, which makes a good beginning if you are not going to include the Introduction to the complete ballet. That Scene is included later on Signum – the recording follows the action of the complete ballet – and the selection opens with the Waltz which follows it in the Suite, Op.20a, not an ideal way to open the music.

The selection also omits the Hungarian Dance which forms part of the suite, but includes the Spanish and Neapolitan dances. And why play just the first three items from the Act I Pas de trois and omit the remainder, for which there would have been plenty of room? So, here we have a recording of excerpts – at least they aren’t claimed as ‘highlights’ – which omits even some items from the short suite.

There’s more of the music – 75 minutes – on a recording of excerpts from a very worthwhile former complete set, with experienced ballet conductor John Lanchbery and an earlier incarnation of the Philharmonia, but that comes only as an expensive download, up to £16.99 in lossless sound, and no booklet (2435745065). At that price, you may as well go for a complete recording: the classic LSO/André Previn can be found for £8.50 on a 2-CD set (Warner 9676842 – don’t pay almost four times as much, which some are asking for the download). That has replaced the Lanchbery complete set, formerly on Classics for Pleasure, and still worth looking out for as a used copy, as Warner’s ex-EMI budget offering.

There used to be single-CD excerpts from the three Tchaikovsky ballets from Mark Ermler and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra, but these seem to have disappeared, though the complete Swan Lake remains available as a very worthwhile download for around £11.50 in lossless sound (Sony 88697575342). Dan Morgan’s first choice, from Evgeny Svetlanov on Melodiya seems to have disappeared, with over £54 being asked for a used copy. The recording of the Suite on Beulah, now best obtained from Qobuz in lossless sound, offers a good sample of Karajan’s recordings with the Philharmonia and Vienna Philharmonic – review.

Having given us very fine accounts of the first two Sibelius symphonies – the natural descendants of Tchaikovsky’s music (ALPHA440: Recommended – review ; ALPHA574: Recommended – review) – Santti-Matias Rouvali should be the ideal person to record Swan Lake. Predictably, he is at his best in the yearning music, as on track 6, Act II Scene. I was going to say that the recording was ideal for casual listening in the car, but I think this track might well distract your attention.

The same applies to the dramatic performance of the finale. Rouvali may start a little tentatively with a rather pulled-around recording of the Act I Valse, but he certainly ends with as big a bang and as maestoso an ending as any performance that I could name.

What comes between is entertaining, but nothing as special as Rouvali’s Sibelius; I wasn’t being facetious when I suggested that it might be best heard as the background to a short journey by car or a bus or train commute – just keep the volume down if you’re listening on buds, for the sake of your hearing and the peace of other passengers.

If you want to hear how good Rouvali can be, just check out his Sibelius First Symphony – link above; that really is worth getting excited about, the Second almost as much so. I'm less enthusiastic about this recording: there are better and fuller selections of Swan Lake to be had and in more idiomatic performances. The recording is very good – the applause is retained, but there is not much else to betray the live audience. The booklet is adequate, but rather short.

Brian Wilson

Act I: No. 2, Valse
Act I: No. 4, Pas de trois: I. Intrada
Act I: No. 4, Pas de trois: II. Andante sostenuto
Act I: No. 4, Pas de trois: III. Allegro semplice
Act I: No. 8, Dance of the Goblets: Tempo di polacca
Act I: No. 10, Scene: Moderato
Act II: No. 13, Dance of the Cygnets: IV. Allegro moderato
Act III: No. 18, Scene: Allegro
Act III: No. 19, Pas de six: III. Moderato – IV. Allegro
Act III: No. 19b, Pas de deux: I. Introduction
Act III: No. 21, Spanish Dance: Allegro non troppo (Tempo di bolero)
Act III: No. 22, Neapolitan Dance: Allegro moderatoAndantino
Act IV: No. 29, Finale: Andante – allegro agitato – Moderato e maestoso


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