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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-1876) [154:41]
James Ehnes (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 18 June, 3-6 December 2012, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. Hybrid SACD, stereo and multi-channel
CHANDOS CHSA 5124 [81:17 + 73:24]

A brand-new recording of Swan Lake - especially a Super Audio one - is cause for celebration. I say that even if one already has any/all of the classic versions - Ansermet, Previn, Lanchbery, Ermler and Dutoit among them - of this guaranteed crowd-pleaser: perennially fresh and exciting with glittering set-pieces. That said, of the versions in the catalogue not all are complete and many are starting to show their age when it comes to sound.
 
I am fiercely loyal to Ansermet, whose theatrical instincts make his vintage Decca performance one of the most enduring and dramatically intense I know. Lanchbery is another man of the theatre, and his EMI Classics set has all the lilt, energy and diversity of character that one would want; older readers will remember the original LPs in their distinctive silver and red du Maurier box. Mark Ermler and his Royal Opera band also benefit from their work together in the pit, even if the 1989 recording is apt to sound a little aggressive now. Sadly, that’s also true of André Previn and the LSO, whose classic EMI performance lost much of its refulgence in the transfer to digital.
 
I recently acquired Charles Dutoit’s much-praised Montreal set, which I’d somehow missed when it was first released in 1992. Alas, I didn’t warm to it at first - ditto his Nutcracker - more of that later. Would all the essential attributes listed earlier manifest themselves in this Järvi/Bergen performance. I must admit to reservations at the outset, as this conductor can be rather brisk and unsmiling at times; his recent Chandos recordings - several of which I’ve reviewed for Download News - have been variable to say the least.
 
The Bergen Philharmonic have also had a patchy record of late; their BIS recordings of Stravinsky and Prokofiev with Andrew Litton don’t find them at their very best. However, their Turangalîla with Juanjo Mena (review) and their Berlioz overtures with Sir Andrew Davis (review) most certainly do. The Introduction to this new Swan Lake comes across well enough, but already there are hints of the rhythmic inflexibility that resurfaces in the iconic Valse a few minutes later. That said, Järvi does bring out the splendour of the scurrying Allegro giusto, and the brass and percussion are superbly rendered.
 
Listening to that first waltz I was struck by the nicely nuanced playing, although it’s clear that Järvi’s reading isn’t going to be anywhere near as vivacious as those of his finest rivals. Take the start of the Pas de trois, for instance; it sounds glorious, but where’s that breath-bating sense of spectacle? Or that deep, animating passion? Tempi are a problem too. How on earth would dancers respond to this school-masterish lack of give and take? I don’t mind brisk, but I take exception to brusque, especially in this most yielding and spontaneous of scores. Regrettably, as Järvi busks his way through this music he misses all the pleasures of the moment.
 
Frankly, the rest of Act I is utterly charmless, and although Järvi’s rather breathless Coda is undeniably thrilling it’s too rumty-tumty for my taste. This metronomic response to Tchaikovsky’s living, breathing narrative is just too dispiriting for words. Indeed, all those delectable tunes pass as if on a featureless assembly line to nowhere. Staying with the machine-like metaphors, Järvi exposes all the music’s cogs and gears, and they don’t always mesh as smoothly as they should. At least the melting, harp-led Finale offers some respite, albeit very brief, before we trundle into Act II.
 
I have no qualms about the sound which, although a little dry, is pretty good. It’s not one of those exaggerated ‘hi-fi’ presentations - the prominent bass of earlier Chandos recordings has vanished - and transients are well caught. What a pity these fine sonics are wasted on such a lacklustre performance. The catch-in-the-throat loveliness at the start of Act II is nowhere to be seen, and the passionate intensity that Ansermet and Lanchbery find elsewhere proves just as elusive. Intensely irritating, too, is the curious stop-start nature of what we hear; Järvi makes little or no attempt to segue the numbers.
 
Odette’s solo, which calls for tenderness and lift, is dour and leaden, and there’s absolutely no joy in the waltz and or in Dance of the Cygnets that follows. That really is the problem with this Swan Lake, it’s drab and joyless; even the playing seems hesitant at times, Tchaikovsky’s melodies stunted by too many imprecisions. As for Odette and Siegfried’s pivotal dance it lacks all magic when it’s as foursquare as this. Just listen to how Ansermet, Lanchbery and Previn bend these rhythms. The music is a mirror of the enchanted love that enfolds this doomed pair.
 
There’s something else missing here, and that’s an element of fantasy; without it we are never really drawn into this dark fairy tale. Instead we are just bystanders, stony of face and heart. Act III offers little for the famished ear and spirit, although the big moments - helped by this fine recording - aren’t without a certain panache. Then Järvi spoils it all with a now gabbling, now pallid Ballabile. As parties go this is something of a disaster; the dances are graceless - not altogether surprising at these sluggish speeds - and the warming glow that usually radiates from this music is conspicuous by its absence.
 
Indeed, while I may have expected a swift reading I was surprised to get a lugubrious one as well; this seems to be a performance of sudden extremes, with little subtlety or substance in between. I’d go so far as to say it’s peremptory in parts, with little variety and no sense of dramatic ebb and flow. To put it bluntly, Act III simply chugs along; and if you thought the journey would be enlivened by the national dances I’m afraid you’d be much mistaken. A dull Csárdás and an equally drab Danse Russe precede a fairly sunny display by the Spaniards. As for Järvi’s halting Neapolitan number it’s no match for the more fluid and idiomatic Dutoit, whose cornet player is sensational.
 
Dipping into Dutoit at this point - and he’s never been my top choice in this repertoire - I had to marvel at the nuance and colour he finds in these show-stopping set-pieces. What a sparkling celebration of local colour these dances are - albeit filtered through Russian sensibilities - and how grey they seem under Järvi. Not surprisingly the start of Act IV lacks all sense of impending apotheosis or tragedy; how could it be otherwise, given the absence of a compelling narrative? These tragic and transfiguring events - assuming one prefers the downbeat ending to the upbeat one - count for precious little here. Ansermet and his transported players are overwhelming at this point, as one is drawn, helplessly, into the great vortex of the ballet’s closing scene. Predictably Järvi overdrives the big climaxes, which certainly sound splendid, but that just underlines the episodic, prodding nature of this performance as a whole. Lanchbery and the Philharmonia are also rather special here. As for Dutoit and the OSM they are unfailingly vivacious - that word again - and both transform a mere spectacle into a heart-stopping drama. This is a work that should leave one spent and elated at its close; that it does neither under Järvi should come as no surprise.
 
Reviewers aren’t immune to prejudices or preferences, and sometimes it’s very hard to break those old bonds. That said, I’m thrilled when a new performance challenges or supplants a long-held favourite; I really hoped Järvi’s Swan Lake would be one of those, even if I did have doubts at the outset. To put it bluntly - that phrase again - Järvi is not the powerhouse he once was, and the Bergen orchestra aren’t at their best either. The only positive in this set is the recording, but even then it seems a bit pale next to the big, flamboyant sound Decca provides for Dutoit. In fact Järvi’s Swan Lake has made me re-evaluate Dutoit’s, which has a theatricality and thrust that I hadn’t appreciated before.
 
An uninspired Swan Lake, albeit in fine sound; Järvi has clearly lost his edge here.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei
 


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