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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1876) [156:02]
The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (1889) [160:03]
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1892) [86:20]
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. Kingsway Hall, 1976 (Swan Lake); Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, 1974 (Sleeping Beauty); Kingsway Hall, 1972 (Nutcracker)
WARNER CLASSICS 9029597489 [7 CDs: 403:35] 

In his 2010 review of the classic Previn/LSO Sleeping Beauty, Nick Barnard remarked: ‘I do feel a spruced-up remastering is what [this recording] richly deserves.’ In that, he echoes my feelings about the team’s Nutcracker, whose manifold pleasures on LP were diminished by EMI’s fierce, very fatiguing CD reissues. Ditto their Swan Lake, which, like the other ballets here, was so memorable in its LP form.

Well, the good news is that Warner have now remastered these recordings, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in 2011, The Sleeping Beauty in 2016, and repackaged all seven discs in a sturdy retro-box for around £12. Of course, remastering doesn’t always achieve the desired result, but in recent years a number of classics have been transformed in ways I scarcely thought possible. The BD-A version of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (Decca) and William Steinberg’s coupling of Also sprach Zarathustra and The Planets (Deutsche Grammophon) spring readily to mind. Then there’s the vastly improved version of Ravel’s Daphnis, with Pierre Monteux (Praga Digitals), and a revealing refurb of the Previn/LSO Shostakovich Babi Yar (Warner).

So, has the ‘snake oil’ worked here too? Swan Lake, on the first two discs, certainly sounds warmer and fuller than it does on previous CD issues. Not only that, there seems to be a little more ‘air’ around the instruments, the brass especially well served. Also, the delectable woodwinds are more easily discernible. Most important, much of that strident treble has gone. Alas, not all, but at least there’s none of the jaw clenching that usually accompanies ‘edgy’ recordings. As a performance, it’s as accomplished as I remembered it, with the LSO in sparkling form. Rhythms are nicely sprung, tuttis are exciting without being overdriven, and there’s a seamless ease to the music-making that can’t fail to please. One thing I’d quite forgotten, though, was the spectacular finale; indeed, it’s as dramatically intense as any on record.

What a pleasure it is to hear that ‘golden oldie’ in such amenable sound. It's also good to be reminded of Previn’s halcyon days with this orchestra, which he led from 1968 to 1979. Hence my impatience to revisit their Sleeping Beauty, on discs three to five. Unlike Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, both of which were recorded in the legendary acoustic of Kingsway Hall, this was taped at another fabled venue, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road. The USP of this remastering – and that of Swan Lake – is that music omitted in the changeover from LP to CD has now been reinstated. However, the sound here is much more forward – I had to reduce the volume a couple of notches – with little of the three-dimensionality that makes the ‘new’ Swan Lake such a sonic treat. In addition to flattened perspectives, there’s a hint of coarseness in the tuttis.

I must confess that, despite its many charms, The Sleeping Beauty is my least favourite Tchaikovsky ballet. It’s certainly the darkest and most complex, powerfully symphonic in places, and, as I remembered, Previn has a very good grasp of the work’s architecture. Not for the first time, I was struck by how forward-looking Tchaikovsky’s writing is here, and how short the leap to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. As for the playing, it’s polished, with fine contributions from all sections, the woodwinds in particular. Overall, this is a compelling performance, if a tad slow at times, the celebrated setpieces nicely done. More than anything, I’m reminded of what a versatile and characterful band the LSO have always been, and how they can sound both collegiate and individual at the same time.

True, one’s audio memory is fickle, and nostalgia often adds Vaseline to the lens, but I’ll never forget, as a student, buying the LPs of Previn’s Nutcracker and playing them to death. Since then, I’ve heard many fine versions, but this one has always had a special place in my affections. What a pity the various CD incarnations – that awful ‘edge’ again – were so disappointing. That said, this performance, recorded in 1972, boasts some of the nimblest woodwind playing imaginable. Previn’s pace, phrasing and dynamic shading are as persuasive as ever, but despite a tamed treble there’s a hint of hardness in certain passages. What concerns me most, though, is the slightly ‘processed’ sound, and that might be one of the reasons why this recording seems to have lost its magic for me.

Of these three offerings, Swan Lake is by far the most rewarding, both musically and in terms of the remastered sound. Indeed, I’d now rank it alongside my current favourite, the recently remastered set from Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR SO (Melodiya). In second place is The Sleeping Beauty, Previn more nuanced, colourful and cohesive than I remembered. I do prefer it to the much lauded Antal Doráti/Concertgebouw recording, which generates more heat than light (Philips/UMG). As indicated, time and a very average remastering have not been kind to Previn’s Nutcracker. Happily, there are many great performances out there, Ernest Ansermet/OSR (Decca, Major Classics) and the LSO under Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc) high among them. Then again, such comparisons matter less in the context of this bargain box, which is sure to please impecunious buyers and Previn fans alike.

Three classic sets remastered; not an unqualified success, though.

Dan Morgan

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