Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
LP Number: Merc. OL-3-102 (3 mono LPs, out of print)
In the movie 10, when Dudley Moore’s psychiatrist asks how he rates Bo Derek on a scale of one to ten, Moore replies, "11." That's how I feel about this performance. Like Glenn Gould's breakout recording of the Goldberg Variations, Peter Maag's Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream music, and Nicole Kidman in To Die For, Mercury's 1954 recording by Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, is an 11 -- and by a league the best performance on records of any ballet score.
I consider myself fortunate to have come across this recording in my formative years. Amid a sea of merely well intentioned interpretations, it enlightened me to what is truly possible when a great musician encounters not-very-spectacular music. While it is relatively easy to turn out a stirring performance of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto or Falla's Three Cornered Hat, to move the soul with a recording of an entire classical ballet score takes genius... and a little luck.
Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake is not as inventive as his Nutcracker, nor as brilliant as Sleeping Beauty, nor as colorful as Delibes' Coppélia (all given first-class readings by Dorati on Mercury, the first and last in superb stereo). It is, however, among the most thematically and temperamentally integrated of ballet scores; and with the exception of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet (not recorded complete by Mercury or Dorati), the most dramatically affecting.
It requires just the right sensibility to keep the music of Swan Lake alive as its characters move inexorably toward tragedy and apotheosis. And it is this ability -- to bring kinetic life to music not originally intended to be experienced in the comfort of one's living room -- that is Antal Dorati's forte. No one else makes ballet music as emotionally compelling. Dorati's uniquely tragic vision of Swan Lake stands alone in the annals of recording.
Tchaikovsky interweaves dances of classical simplicity and clarity with scenes of exquisite tenderness and pathos throughout this tragic tale of a young prince’s love for a swan. It is a story of magic, of dual and counterfeit personalities. The challenge for the conductor (as well as the choreographer) is to understand and strengthen the relationship between story and music, to integrate and elucidate the dramatic and musical texts. This might at first blush seem obvious, but its execution is not--particularly with Nineteenth-century classical ballet music.
Dorati works every phrase and dance sequence, no matter how mundane or heroic, into a meaningful place in the drama. From the outset the solo oboe intones the certainty that things will not go well. Even the pizzicato in the lower strings seems auspicious. Dorati holds our interest through two hours of relentless melody, building to a finale so powerfully tragic and noble that it stops the breath.
The mid-1950's Minneapolis Symphony could at times produce less than the loveliest of tones. But over the two days it took to record the entire score, the MSO musicians played their hearts out for Dorati. What might have been a liability in lighter fare only adds the necessary angst in Swan Lake. In pushing their abilities near the breaking point, the musicians underscore the emotional distress of the characters on stage. Not that the MSO play with anything less than unanimity of spirit and tonal production. They respond alertly to their conductor’s rhythmic nuances.
There are special moments of transcendent beauty when we hear, as if played by an angel, the refined solo violin of Rafael Druian (who later served for many years as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra). Better than any violinist on record, Druian captures flawlessly both the poignancy of the impending tragedy in Act II's "Dance of the Swans" and the wistfulness of the Act III "Russian Dance."
Anatole Fistoulari recorded a somewhat abbreviated version of the score for Decca in a two-LP set, also available in mono (London LL 565/566). The jacket notes describe maestro Fistoulari as the "One Time Chef d'Orchestre, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo" -- serious credentials indeed.
Fistoulari's conception of the music couldn't be more different from Dorati's. Whereas Mercury's chef is always aware of Swan Lake's enchanted melancholy, Decca's is more concerned with celebrating the beauties of the orchestral textures and melodies. Fistoulari's broad phrasing in Act I is utterly without any premonition of sorrows to come. Campoli's violin in Act II could hardly be lovelier -- nor death further from his mind! With Dorati and Druian the violin truly evokes Odette, Queen of Swans, the cursed subject of this bittersweet melodrama.
Ernest Ansermet recorded the ballet for Decca in very good stereo a few years after Dorati, and his version was reissued by Speakers Corner two years ago. But unlike his work on behalf of Stravinsky, this Swan Lake is not one of Ansermet's finer efforts. He is better when a score offers more orchestral color to challenge him. The simple nuances of Swan Lake elude him. Like Fistoulari, Ansermet's interest is in the beauty of the melodic line, its harmonies and textures, rather than the dramatic text. In his hands the opening pages are absent any expository sense whatever. The whole of the first act might just as easily be the middle movement of a lesser composer’s symphony -- one that has us longing for the finale. Ansermet's Swan Lake certainly is pretty, and it has a rhythmic buoyancy of sorts. But it has no dramatic meaning.
Speaking of challenge and nuance, you might consider comparing Dorati with Ansermet yourself. If you don't immediately grasp what Dorati is about -- if you don't intellectually comprehend the dramatic implications in the music as realized by the one and ignored by the other -- there must be something wrong with your playback system. Mono records, especially those that don't have the word "mono" on the jacket, were manufactured with the expectation that they would be played through a monophonic playback system. They will never have quite the same sense of space, dynamics, and scale when played through today's stereo systems. That said, a good audio system is able to realize a tangibility lacking in many stereo recordings.
For all practical purposes, the only pressings to consider for Mercury mono's are -- in order of publication--the MF, FR, and RFR. The MF pressings sound best on true mono playback systems where the cartridge and tonearm are properly designed for recovering information cut by a mono cutterhead. Modern stereo pickups and lightweight arms can be problematic with such masterings, but excellent results can be obtained from MF pressings with a cartridge that tracks at or above 2.5 grams mounted in a relatively high-mass arm. (My setup is an Audio Note Io moving coil cartridge in a TriPlanar arm.)
To do this right, you should locate all three alternative pressings of a couple of Mercury recordings and, based on your impressions of the comparisons, given your pickup, arm, and table, you can safely generalize to the rest of the catalog. Through my system, the MF pressings offer the most dynamic and most corporeal sound; the RFR pressings, the most delicate; and FR pressings, the least interesting. Your mileage may differ.
As for the records at hand, the one unenthusiastic comment I have is that this Swan Lake is not representative of Mercury's engineering at its best. (As is, for example, the dazzling MG 50047 with Dorati/MSO playing music by Britten and Ginastera.) Yet despite some brittleness and opacity to the sound, there is an immediacy that conveys one of the most dynamic readings of this score on record -- from the delicacy of the solo violin to the powerful tympani roll at the peak of the finale.
And once you give in to the sound, you are likely to be seduced and transported to unexpected pleasures. But if great sonics are of paramount importance, you will not be disappointed with the Ansermet stereo sound. (Again, compared to Dorati, Ansermet's performance is just good acoustic wallpaper.
Mercury published Swan Lake as three separate records as well as in two different gatefold albums. The later album set has a hard cover with a photograph of New York City Ballet's striking Maria Tallchief as Odette. The original album is an elegant light blue ersatz-silk package bearing only the title. Unhappily, it is given to serious fading over the years. Both editions include the same packet of black & white photographs of such mid-century prima ballerinas as Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Alexandra Danilova, and Tamara Toumanova.
I have been able to find good copies of the original deluxe album with MF pressings in second hand stores and on line. The hard cover edition, usually with RFR pressings, is more rare, but often found in better condition than the earlier MF. The three separate LPs are packaged conveniently as Act 1, Acts 2 & 4, and Act 3, on MG 50068, 50069, and 50070 respectively. Just to keep things lively, the singles are presented in several cover designs (two of which are pictured above). Either is as likely to have the original MF pressings as the silk deluxe edition. I value a mint copy of the deluxe edition at $200 -- by which I mean that I would be willing to pay that price IF it were in fact mint. You are as likely to find either the MF or the RFR 3-LP set for between $25-75. In my experience, the records in the set are usually in better shape than the singles.