Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, complete (CD review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 9 67689 2 1 (2-disc set).

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote the second of his big ballets, The Sleeping Beauty, in 1889 and premiered it in 1890. Unfortunately for the composer, while the ballet would go on to become one of his most-loved items, he wouldn’t live long enough to see it attain its ultimate popularity. It seems a shame, given how much self-doubt Tchaikovsky always had and with what little regard he held most of his own work. The Sleeping Beauty also enjoys the distinction of being the longest piece of music Tchaikovsky composed, usually abbreviated as it is here. (EMI’s packaging assures us it is “complete,” but they cut it by several minutes.)

Anyway, when Angel Records (EMI’s subsidiary classical label in America at the time) first released this 1974 recording on LP, it was both a blessing and a chore. The blessing: When Previn recorded it, it went immediately to the top of my recommendations for the work (on vinyl). Subsequently, I noticed its appearance on other lists as a top contender, including High Fidelity magazine's "Record Riches of a Quarter-Century," Gramophone magazine's "Recommended Recordings," the Penguin Guide’s recommended listings, etc. The “chore” I’ll come to.

Tchaikovsky’s music is a nonstop flow of inspired melodies, both graceful and dramatic. Previn’s performance is at once exciting, subtle, enchanting, and lovely. Unlike many other, higher powered productions, Previn's reading brings a true fairy-tale richness and delicacy to the score.

But that chore: The sound on the American-issued LP seemed a little dull and constricted, and the recording took many years finally to show up on CD. When it did appear on silver disc, the company packaged it in a hard cardboard long-box, with a plastic tray insert that held two separate jewel cases and a lavishly illustrated, twelve-inch story booklet, obviously meant for children. The box itself, clearly intended as a gift set, would not even fit on an ordinary CD shelf.

Happily, EMI rectified the former sins of their Angel subsidiary and the initial goofy CD packaging by issuing the complete Previn Sleeping Beauty in 2004 in a two-disc, slimline jewel box with proper notes and a budget price. And the EMI sound, like almost all of producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker's collaborations, is first-rate. In 2009 they re-released it in the pictured box at an even better price. The combination is unbeatable.

What’s more, although the new packaging indicates that the mastering is the same one they had done a decade earlier (“Digital remastering 1993 by EMI Records Ltd.”), it sounds to me somewhat different. The newer version seems very slightly brighter, cleaner, clearer, and more open by comparison to the older mastering.  I can only account for this in one of two ways: Either (1) EMI touched up the new mastering without telling anybody; or (2) I was hearing the differences among my three CD players (two Sony’s and a Yamaha), even though I kept changing out the discs every few minutes. Whatever, the set is still the best recommendation I can make for this piece, and EMI offer it at a price that’s still unbeatable.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa