The Case For Collecting
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Sleeping Beauty
For my first review of classic mono recordings for Enjoy the Music.com I chose my favorite record: Mercury's 1954 recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. In quick succession, Mercury released Peter Ilyich's two other major ballet scores, The Sleeping Beauty and the ever-popular Christmas perennial, The Nutcracker the full-length score, not just the Suite. Dorati never recorded Swan Lake a second time, but he did the others, and in stereo: once for Sleeping Beauty and twice for The Nutcracker. Herewith, my observations of the lot.
Family-size album of 12.5 x 14.3 inches, with the Christmas candy- stripe cover and the spine edge string that barely holds on to the booklet. Released in 1955, it was the first complete LP set of Tchaikovsky's dazzling score. [The popularity of the familiar suites, derived mostly from the second act, has led many to think that The Nutcracker Suite is the same thing as The Nutcracker, even after attending a full-length production of the ballet.]
Mercury's was the first recording that fully followed the composer's indications for untraditional instrumentation, including children's toy instruments and an actual gunshot. (Mr. T does love those things that go bang.) The project generated considerable excitement in the company--musicians, engineers, and designers alike. The result is a classic, and one not easy to find in mint condition, either in the original dynamic MF or the more refined FR pressing. At least the performance is available on CD.
The key to interpreting The Nutcracker is to convey its childlike innocence and magical wonder while maintaining the basic kinetic energy of the ballet. Tchaikovsky was already beginning to explore more dramatic sweeps in his Sleeping Beauty (1889), but there was nothing in nineteenth-century ballet to quite prepare us for the likes of the Nutcracker's battle with the armies of the mouse king in the first act.
Teachers of music appreciation like to distinguish between "program" and "absolute" music, offering Berlioz and Liszt as exemplars as much because they were said to write symphonies that didn't follow the "rules" of symphonic construction as that their music was especially evocative. Prior to Swan Lake (1877), ballet music was merely danceable, not all that suggestive of the image. Composers were able to get the mood of the thing, but not necessarily the visual. Tchaikovsky, in his three ballets, changed the course of dance theatre forever. There are stretches where our imaginations are compelled to visualize the action, whether we have seen it in the flesh or not. From his three great ballets, and not least The Nutcracker (1892), it isn't far to Stravinsky's The Firebird, Petrouchka and Le Sacre (1909-13), and eventually to Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet (1935).
Most of us have seen at least one production of this ballet. The music is so associated with images from Balanchine to Disney that all we have to do is close our eyes to be swept away to fantasy-land. No other ballet has quite that currency. Tchaikovsky was said to be famously unfond of his offspring; but what did he know? He was just one year short of being a dead man. Not even Stravinsky's elegant Firebird or primal Rite of Spring has such a connection to our collective visual memory. In my view, The Nutcracker, in its ability to connect danceable music with visual drama, easily and directly presages everything from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet to Disney's Fantasia.
[An aside regarding Romeo: The Kirov Ballet shelved the project that the company itself had commissioned, and the Bolshoi dismissed Prokofiev's score as undanceable. It was premiered in 1938 by a lesser company in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and eventually staged by the Kirov in early 1940, the same year that saw the release of Fantasia. While Prokofiev failed to capture Disney's imagination then or in 2000, the idea that symphonic music might have compelling visual cues was not lost, and I think it's fair to say that Fantasia is the first important example of abstract dance in cinema.]
Dorati recorded this score twice with Mercury the 1955 mono with Minneapolis, and ten years later in stereo (released simultaneously in mono, as pictured above) with the London Symphony and yet again in stereo with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on Philips. Each of these has distinctive qualities, but they are three best Nutcrackers on record.
Dorati is well served by the LSO, but for all its sonic glory and sweetness of playing, the LSO does not generally equal the fantastic wonder the MSO conveys. Scene for scene there are exceptions for instance in the opening scene of Act 2 in the 1955 recording, where Dorati is more sluggish than regal. But in general the mono is the more magical. Sonically, the MSO mono projects a surprising degree of inner life in the orchestra, as well as considerable depth to the stage, though it is no match for the LSO stereo for a full sense of stage.
Sonics and performance alike mature by the time of the Concertgebouw recording. The sound is more luscious, the playing and conducting more confident. However, we are less engaged held at arm's length by a bit too much starch, particularly in the second act, where Dorati is uncharacteristically lethargic (as is Ansermet in his gorgeous stereo recording for Decca). Perhaps it has to do with the mono Mercury being part of the trio of complete Tchaikovsky ballets that were recorded consecutively. Whatever the reason, the MSO seems to play for an invisible stage filled with children and dancing fantastic creatures. The LSO, and the Concertgebouw even more so, are almost too grown-up by comparison, although I still highly recommend the LSO version. We may appreciate the technical marvels and brilliant orchestral playing of the stereo productions, but we delight in the childlike wonder of the MSO mono. You can find both FR and original MF pressings in the original cover; the trick is finding a mint MF.
The Nutcracker. MSO / Dorati. Mercury OL-2-101
The Sleeping Beauty
It has been said with good reason that the best score for any Disney animated feature is by one of those dead white Europeans. The Sleeping Beauty is relentlessly and by turns dramatic, romantic and fantastic. I don't find it as danceable a score as either The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, but it is gorgeous and symphonic--the most dazzling of the three. The public outside Russia didn't see a full-length production of Marius Petipa's original choreography until 1921, when it was revived first by Diaghilev's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and later by London's Sadler's Wells Ballet. Diaghilev found that public interest was not forthcoming until he reduced the scenario to less than a quarter of its length, re-titling it Aurora's Wedding. In one version or another, The Sleeping Beauty has since become a mainstay of the classic ballet repertoire.
Dorati recorded The Sleeping Beauty first in mono with Minneapolis in 1955, and again 26 years later for Philips in stereo with the Concertgebouw. Oh, to have had Dorati and the Concertgebouw recorded by Mercury on Philips vinyl. Heavens, what an orchestra! But what does it matter if the performance is mush? This Concertgebouw is altogether too agreeable compared to Mercury's MSO. Perhaps the Concertgebouw is simply too good, and perhaps the MSO was trying harder in Dorati's (and Mercury's) earlier days. Whatever the cause, the Minneapolis performance has spirit, while the Dutch have only good taste.
The Introduction scares the heebie-jeebies out of you on the Mercury, but on the Philips it is simply gorgeous. And while Anatole Fistoulari's 2 LP set with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (London LL-636/637) doesn't exactly frighten us in the opening pages, there is plenty of energy, even if not demonic.
In the final act, the rhythmic pointing by the MSO woodwinds in Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (#22) is absent on the Philips. The Concertgebouw winds are flawlessly elegant, but you can't dance to them. To put it another way, Dorati's 1955 reading is ballet music; the 1981 smacks of the concert hall. Fistoulari's gentle rhythmic swagger heats up, along with the texture and tempo. Ansermet points up the flutes nicely, but forgets about them when the bassoons arrive. (Or perhaps that's the effect of London's stereophonic version; I don't have the mono.)
Some of my favorite music in the ballet is the opening of Act 1, where the castle is abustle in preparation for the coming out of Princess Aurora. The strings scurrying over the regal horn calls set an anticipatory mood as well as does any ballet score in the ensuing decades until the opening "Tumult" of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Fistoulari gets more excitement out of his players, blending horns and strings and increasing the pace, but ignoring the possibilities of dramatic counterpoint between the royals and the hired help. On the other hand, the big Waltz that comes out of this scene is so set off from its precedent by Fistoulari that it catches your breath. (Perhaps it helps that some of the music is cut in his edition. It is only a two-disc set, after all.) On the other hand, Ansermet blows the Waltz altogether; it appears out of nowhere. Nor is it as drop-dead gorgeous as either MSO/Dorati or Paris/Fistoulari. Ansermet seems bent on discovering Tchaikovsky's Symphony #8: he so integrates the horns and strings in the opening bars that there is neither choreographic nor dramatic possibility (in the sense of characters in a play). L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande sounds magnificent, but here again the score is played as concert, not ballet music. As such, I give Ansermet points over Dorati/Philips.
In the Pas d'Action that closes the second act (# 15), there is simply not enough rhythmic energy in Ansermet's reading. Fistoulari's solo cello breathes as would a dancer; Ansermet's cello takes symphonic breaths (echoes of the Andante cantabile from the Fifth Symphony.) Dorati, much closer to Fistoulari, places the episode poignantly in the narrative.
One of the most problematic sections is "The Sleep" (No. 19), which sets the stage for the kiss of awakening at the end of Act 1. One of the world's longest-held tremolos, high in the violins, gives way only after five and one-half minutes (honest!) to the cellos. During this mist there is scarcely any melodic activity. We hold our collective breaths for the arrival of the Prince to break the spell. Non-kinetic perhaps, but in the context of the ballet we feel the animated release at the moment of the kiss--and to prepare us there must be proper suspense before his arrival. Ansermet handles the problem by cutting away from the violin tremolo directly to the cellos after less than fifteen seconds. While that solves the structural challenge, there's no breath to hold. Fistoulari's solution is to cut the sequence altogether. Dorati bites the bullet and gives it his all, asking the MSO to do likewise. Tchaikovsky isn't much help here, providing more texture than music, like so many parting curtains. But dramatically the scene is essential, however difficult to bring off musically.
Just to confuse everyone, Mercury's Sleeping Beauty is available complete in four different editions, with either 3 or 4 LPs, depending. The 3-LP versions are in the original deluxe edition with MF pressings, pictured at the top of this review. The hardcover editions, with RFR pressing, are pictured immediately above. The Sleeping Beauty is also available across four separate LPs, titled respectively: Prologue ~ The Christening; Act 1 ~ The Spell; Act 2 ~ The Vision; and Act 3 ~ Aurora's Wedding. While Diaghilev's ballet ("Aurora's Wedding" MG 50118) has the same title, it is not identical to the original music for the final act. In one of the 4-LP sets, the cover art changes with each LP (an example of which features the cover art for the second act, above); in the other set, the cover art remains the same: a photo of Margot Fonteyn poised elegantly under an arch, as pictured above.
Antal Dorati's seminal mid-50s Mercury recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballets, along with Solti's Ring cycle and Dorati's complete survey of the Haydn symphonies both for Decca in stereo lead the pack of those ambitious, successful recording projects, a short list of which includes: the Tatrai's recordings of the important Opp. of Haydn string quartets on Hungaroton; Alfred Brendel's early recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas for Vox; and Murray Perahia's performances of the Mozart piano concertos for Columbia. We return to these recordings repeatedly for insight and pleasure.
The Sleeping Beauty. MSO / Dorati. Mercury OL-3-103