Tchaikovsky: Ballet Highlights (CD review)

Excerpts from Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 18753 2 7.

EMI Records Ltd. could probably continue as a record company indefinitely just by re-releasing Andre Previn's 1970's recordings with the London Symphony. It seems as though they've already reissued highlights from his complete sets of Tchaikovsky ballets about 800 times. Fortunately, 800 re-releases still aren't enough to do justice to this great music or these great performances, so it's good to have them back again at so reasonable a price on this 2011 EMI Masters "Great Classical Recordings" disc.

The disc includes excerpts from all three of Tchaikovsky's big-three ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Each of the suites includes about twenty-five minutes of highlights and six to eight selections from each respective ballets. Most important, because Tchaikovsky's music is always a nonstop flow of inspired melodies, both graceful and dramatic, we get performances to match. Previn's interpretations are at once exciting, subtle, enchanting, and lovely. Unlike many other, higher powered productions, Previn's readings bring a true fairy-tale richness and delicacy to the scores. And the sound, like almost all of producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker's collaborations, is first-rate.

First up is the music from Swan Lake, which the composer premiered in 1877. It's the earliest and the most symphonic-sounding of Tchaikovsky's big-three ballets, which is perhaps why it did not do as well initially as his later works did. Previn recorded the ballet in 1976, the last of his recordings of the trio. Maybe it was because people expected so much of it by that time that it tended to disappoint a few listeners. The fact is, while it's maybe not quite as vital or energetic as his earlier performances, perhaps a tad more casual, I've always found it one of the best complete recordings available. Among the selection of excerpts here, we get the big "Waltz," the "Dance of the Little Swans," the "Hungarian Dance," the "Spanish Dance," and others. OK, I admit I missed hearing the closing scene, the big finale, but what we do get is fine.

Even more to the point is Previn's complete Sleeping Beauty (1890), a recording first released in 1974. I fell in love with its glitter and charm at first listen and immediately placed it at the top of my recommendations for the work. Sometime afterwards it appeared on other rosters of top contenders as well, including High Fidelity magazine's "Record Riches of a Quarter-Century," Gramophone magazine's "Recommended Recordings," the Penguin Stereo Record Guide's listing, etc. I couldn't have been happier to see that others agreed with me and shared my delight in this wonderful music. Among the selections, we get the "Waltz," the "Rose" adagio, "The Panorama," the "Pas de caractere," the "Pas de deux," and the Adagio, Coda, and Finale. If we find more music from Sleeping Beauty than from its companions, it's only fitting; this suite is the highlight of the highlights.

The final suite is from Previn's 1972 recording of The Nutcracker (1892), and here the conductor has more competition. My own personal favorite is from Antal Dorati on Philips, but certainly Previn is in contention. His is a more warmly affectionate reading than most others, softer in approach, richer and more comfortable. The items on the disc include the "Miniature Overture," the "March," the various dances ("Arabian," "Chinese," "Russian," "Reeds"), the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and the "Waltz of the Flowers." In other words, all the big numbers.

As for the sound, EMI recorded the first item on the disc, Swan Lake, last in the sequence, in Kingsway Hall in 1976. For me, it sounds the cleanest, clearest, most transparent of the lot, with the best sense of orchestral depth. It's a trifle more aggressive than the other recordings but more dynamic, with extended highs and gorgeous string tone. EMI did Sleeping Beauty two years earlier, in 1974, in Studio No. 1 Abbey Road. Here, the sound is a touch warmer, softer, and more resonant than that in Kingsway Hall. It's OK because it suits the music. Besides, it's very pleasant and listenable, capturing the magic of the music. Dynamics and stage depth are adequate, too, if not so pronounced as in Swan Lake. Finally, The Nutcracker derives from a 1972 recording again made in Kingsway Hall, but this time it hasn't quite the clarity of Swan Lake. The sound quality is midway between the other two recordings, more transparent and dynamic than Sleeping Beauty but not as lucid as that in Swan Lake. In any case, the differences are small, and all three recordings are excellent.

I'm not entirely sure who buys highlights albums, but if you're in the market for about seventy-three minutes of Tchaikovsky ballet snippets, you can't beat Previn's accounts. They might even encourage a person who doesn't already own recordings of the complete scores to explore them further.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa