Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Suite from the Ballet (XRCD review)

Yehudi Menuhin, solo violin; Efrem Kurtz, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD49.

Although Russian-born, naturalized-American conductor Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995) lived well into the stereo age, he never became as famous as some of his contemporaries like Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, or Otto Klemperer. Still, he made some excellent stereo recordings, such as this 1958 album of highlights from Swan Lake with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with no less a star than Yehudi Menuhin doing the violin solos. The new XRCD remastering does justice to its still-impressive sound.

The director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) to write the score for the ballet we now know as Swan Lake. Premiered in 1877, it was the first of the composer's big-three ballets, with The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty to follow. Today, we take Swan Lake for granted as one of the greatest ballets of all time, but initially it failed. The dancers complained they couldn't dance to the music, the conductor couldn't properly handle the tunes, and critics generally panned it. It would not be until 1895, several years after the composer's death, that the ballet's popularity began to soar in revival.

The story is that Swan Lake started life as a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans, which Tchaikovsky wrote for his family in 1871. Then, when he received the commission, the composer added Russian and German folk tales as his sources, the general plot based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus. One of the salient points about Tchaikovsky's writing it is that critics now consider it the first ballet composed by a writer who had previously worked almost exclusively in the symphonic field. Thus, if Swan Lake sounds more "symphonic" in structure, composition, and themes than earlier ballets, there is a reason.

In four acts Swan Lake tell the story of a young man, Prince Siegfried, whose mother insists it's about time he found a bride and marry. No sooner said than he chances upon a beautiful young woman, Odette, with whom he falls in love. However, as fate would have it, an evil magician has put her and her attendants under a spell whereby they may be human at night but turn into swans by day. Naturally, it is only a true and unfailing love that can save her.

Efrem Kurtz
Kurtz easily negotiates the ups and downs of a suite of popular items from the ballet, and the Philharmonia, then in its prime, perform flawlessly. Indeed, the performance is sparkling in every way. Yet Kurtz never simply goes for show, glitz, or glitter. The music flows naturally, in a fine onward course. What's more, there is an elegance about the reading that one can hardly ignore. It's not just thrills Kurtz is striving for but a genuine sense of place and time, a handsome story told in frank, handsome terms, with little additional embellishment from the conductor. Still, even though Kurtz keeps things on an even keel, he still manages to inject plenty of excitement into the score.

Then there's the matter of Menuhin's solos. I guess I hadn't realized how many solo violin parts there were in the ballet until noticing them here. Certainly, Menuhin handles them deftly, his playing dexterous, gentle, lush, scintillating, as the case may be. The music's idyll sounds particularly touching, with the strings of the Philharmonia adding a poignant glow.

If I have any minor concerns about the disc, there are two: First, nowhere could I find a list of the disc's tracks or timings. The back of the package itemizes the musical content, but it doesn't do so with corresponding track numbers or track times. (For the record, so to speak, the disc contains nineteen tracks for a total of just over fifty-three minutes.) Second, I had a really hard time getting the disc out of its plastic center ring. I mean, you want it to be tight enough to hold the disc firmly in place, but this was ridiculous. I thought I was going to snap the disc in two trying to loosen it.

Otherwise, the packaging is commendable: a glossy, hard-bound Digipak design, with booklet notes bound inside and the disc itself attached to a plastic center ring in the back.

Producers R. Kinloch Anderson and Peter Andry and engineers Neville Boyling and Robert Gooch recorded the suite at Kingsway Hall, London in March and April of 1958. JVC (Victor Company of Japan) remastered and manufactured the present disc using XRCD24, 24-bit Super Analog K2 technology. Hi-Q Records distributes the product.

I did not have an LP or CD of the performance with which to make comparisons, but I believe I can safely say based on what I heard from this remaster and the comparisons I have made of Hi-Q products in the past that this recording is no doubt an improvement over the original mastering. The clarity is outstanding, with a huge dynamic range, strong impact, and good frequency extremes. The high end sounds especially impressive, with a shimmering treble response. However, I must warn that if one's system already favors the high end, the disc might sound a little bright, and even with noise reduction there is a faint sizzle at the very top. Anyway, the stereo spread is also commendable, as is the orchestral depth. So, what we get are excellent sonics to match an exuberant performance. Never mind the age; it's better than almost anything made today.

You can find Hi-Q products at any number of on-line marketplaces, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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