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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Onegin ballet arr. Kurt-Heinz Stolze (1965) [88:09]
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/James Tuggle
rec. venue not specified, 16-17 October 1999
ANIMATO ACD6048 [63:12 + 24:57]
Experience Classicsonline

The enduring popularity of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker has, over the years, tempted several arrangers and choreographers to try their hand at creating “new” Tchaikovsky ballets. 

George Balanchine was particularly keen on the idea, producing Serenade (1935) which utilises the Serenade for Strings in C, op.48; Ballet Imperial a.k.a. Concerto no.2 (1941, re-choreographed 1973) featuring music from the second piano concerto; and Jewels (1967), where the third act (Diamonds) was set to music from the Third Symphony.  Another New York City Balletmaster, Peter Martins, followed the tradition established by Balanchine with Symphony no.1 (1981).  And I note that this year sees the release on DVD of Darcey Bussell, Irek Mukhamedov and the Royal Ballet in a 1992 performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s one-act Winter Dreams, a reworking of the Chekhov play Three Sisters that is set to yet more Tchaikovsky. 

John Cranko’s full length ballet Onegin (1965) follows the story unfolded in the Pushkin poem upon which Tchaikovsky based his own opera Eugene Onegin.  The twist, however, is that none of the music that Kurt-Heinz Stolze arranged for Cranko and his Stuttgart company comes from the opera itself.  A great deal of it is in fact orchestrated from works for solo piano – the Three pieces op.9, the Six pieces op.19, The Seasons op.37b, the Six pieces op.51 and an unnumbered Impromptu.  We also hear orchestral passages derived from the more familiar orchestral showpiece Francesca da Rimini, the less well known opera Cherevichki (The Slippers) and a rarely heard duet scene from Romeo and Juliet that was completed by Taneyev after Tchaikovsky’s death. 

In an age where the pianoforte was a ubiquitous piece of furniture in middle class households, Tchaikovsky was aiming his solo works at a domestic audience.  As such they were deliberately made less taxing than something that he might have written for professional pianists – and in truth, therefore, they are rather less interesting.  Nonetheless, as orchestrated here I imagine that they would underscore quite effectively the on-stage action, even though I grew quite tired of the rather too frequently repeated February - from the mis-named The Seasons, a sequence of twelve pieces that would be more appropriately entitled The Months.  Meanwhile, the Francesca da Rimini and Cherevichki music is, thanks to its origins, inherently more dramatic and adds substantial extra texture and drama to the ballet. 

Whether, however, the score is of sufficient interest to anyone who has not seen the ballet itself – and hence to justify a stand-alone CD like this - is something of a moot point.  To be blunt, is this orchestrated score, without the ability to watch the action on stage, worth listening to as music? 

In composing for the stage, Tchaikovsky was especially sensitive to the requirements of the drama being portrayed: the exquisite balance of light and shade and his expert control and manipulation of the audience’s emotions. These are important factors in explaining the long-lived popularity of his three great ballets.  But much of the music that we have here is not inherently dramatic – using the word in its widest sense – and has defeated several other attempts to bring it successfully to a wider public.  Take The Seasons, for example.  Just looking along my own shelves, I find that renowned Soviet conductor Alexander Gauk arranged it for orchestra (recorded by the USSR State Academy Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov on Audiophile Classics 101.512). More recently, Peter Breiner rewrote the piece for violin and orchestra - Takako Nishizaki is accompanied by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner on Naxos 8.553510.  In spite of such attempts, however, The Seasons has remained obstinately on, at best, the listening public’s Tchaikovsky “C” list. The same is true of much of the rest of the music here.  In the case of all those piano pieces, after all, we know that they were written by Tchaikovsky to tax the fingers – not the heart. 

The appeal, then, of this CD will be primarily to anyone who has seen Cranko’s ballet and who wants a permanent memento.  I can easily believe that, in conjunction with a powerfully portrayed drama on stage, this music would be quite effective.  Certainly, I have no reason to question the Stuttgart Ballet’s current Director Reid Anderson when, in a brief booklet note, he writes that “For years an enthusiastic public around the world has been asking for a recording of Onegin”.  Whether the general classical CD buying public has been doing the same, however, may well be a different matter entirely.  

Rob Maynard


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