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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1849-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20: Concert Suite (1875, arr. K. Järvi 2015)
Gstaad Festival Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
rec. live, Liederhalle Beethoven-Saal, Stuttgart, October 2015
SONY CLASSICAL 88875187472 [68:14]

Kristjan Järvi, who arranged the present concert-length Swan Lake suite, wanted "the concert listener ... to hear certain popular numbers from the ballet," but also to present "the complete musical narrative itself ... in a dramatic symphonic context" -- and, presumably, to get the whole thing within hailing distance of an hour. Each of these goals is laudable; taken together, however, they're fundamentally incompatible.

The Introduction, too well-known to omit in any case, feels almost brusque at the start -- the oboe phrases want some expansion. At the end, the tympani roll, which ordinarily crescendos into the portentous trumpet statement, instead fades, cutting to the bustling Act I opening -- did this really save all that much time? In the Valse, a brisk one-in-a-bar, Järvi skips a number of short sectional repeats; this, along with the race into the final section and coda, should have been a warning.

Instead of "curating" from among the popular numbers, Järvi has made a more generous selection, then subjected them to drastic cutting. In some sequences, including the Pas de trois, successive numbers are reduced, one after the next, to just one statement of the theme and the coda. The effect is decidedly short-winded, and will probably annoy those who, like me, know the music. Sometimes a number, like the final "galloping" movement of the Danses des cygnes, gets out of whack: so much coda, so little theme. To be fair, only in the Act III Scène do these internal cuts sound "ungrammatical": generally, Järvi doesn't injure the harmonic progressions just simply to save time.

It's Järvi-as-conductor, rather, who seems to have his eye on the clock. Brisk tempi aren't necessarily bad in ballet, but some of Järvi's haste is unseemly. He too frequently speeds up at tuttis, which is understandable, and also after the big brass fanfare in the Danses des petits cygnes, which is less so. At the other extreme, he coyly teases the first Danse des cygnes -- to the point where the repeat nearly comes to a standstill - and the Czardas.

I don't want to leave the impression that Järvi does everything wrong. The tightened pacing serves to clarify the shape of the Act III pas de deux and other "slow" numbers. The overtly celebratory tuttis - at the end of Act I, in the Act II pas de deux, in the Act III pas de six - are clangy and boisterous. And those waltzes the conductor actually lets us hear have an elegant, graceful lift. Such passages, however, make the relentless cutting all the more frustrating.

If you care about textual choices in this context, Järvi has a novel solution to the Act III opening, with its stray bar of unaccompanied horns: he takes everyone else out of the first bar, starting the number with two bars of the horn fanfare. This may not be authentic, but it makes sense. On the other hand, he follows the practice of his father, Neeme Järvi (Chandos), in padding out the closing scene with a repeat -- I'd have sacrificed this in favour of leaving the earlier numbers intact.

The orchestra does fine work. The violins are alert and articulate the running figures with dash. The woodwinds are supple; I particularly enjoyed the fluent, bubbly clarinets. The oboes, however, "goose" the accents in their duet in the Introduction, and the principal quacks a bit in the pas de six. The brasses are firm and compact. Concertmaster Vlad Stānculeasa rightly gets applause for the flourishes in the Pas de deux -- the only point in the performance where Järvi is actually forced to hold for applause, instead of plowing on through it.

At its best, the engineering is impressive, bringing solo instruments an almost tangible image, reproducing the brasses with depth and colour. Unfortunately, in the climactic perorations of the Scène finale, the trumpets are the hollow blare that seems to have become increasingly prevalent since the '00s - it's not a musical sound - and the aggressive treble turns oppressive.

If you want a potted Swan Lake, Ormandy's warmly expansive, richly recorded RCA edition is the one to have.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)



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