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:

JJP

2 comments:

  1. John, the difference you hear between the releases is real. This 2009 is the best of all available domestic releases (I have not heard any of the Japanese). It is also better than the one in the recent box set. Sadly, all of the ballets in the box suffer from knob twiddling. The highs are rolled off, probably to mask the tape hiss. I'll take the cuts in the 2009 for the better sound. By the way, the editions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake from around the same time (black background photos) are also the best sounding. Seems EMI label or Warner are identical. Enjoy!

    ReplyDelete
  2. John, I never warmed much for Previn's readings of the Tchaikovsky ballets. This Sleeping Beauty here is, well yeah, OK, nothing really bad but nothing much is going on either. It's all rather tame and safe without any particular insights, passion or magic. The sonics aren't much to write home about either. Very studio-like without any bloom to the orchestral sections. The hi-res remastering may be more open than the earlier tin-can cd version but still no great shakes. Performance-wise I would still go for Ansermet and Dorati (both versions), or even Fistoulari and Monteux in reduced readings. They all share what Previn lacks: a sense of the theatre.
    Marc

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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.

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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