Tchaikovsky / Swan Lake – Notes for All Four Sides

More of the Music of Tchaikovsky

Reviews and Commentaries for the music of Tchaikovsky

This review was written for our first shootout of the complete ballet in 2012.

This London Small Red Label “Whiteback” (it’s white inside the box, not on the back, but you get what I mean) UK Import 2 LP Set put every other recording we had of Swan Lake to shame. This is the one folks, assuming you want a nearly complete performance of the work. (We will have some single LP highlight pressings coming to the site down the road. The Fistoulari on London can be especially good on the right pressing.) 

The performance here by Ansermet and the Suisse Romande I rank second to none.

Ansermet is surely the man for this music, and the famously huge hall he recorded in just as surely contributes much to the wonderful sound here. (The Royal Gala Ballet is a good example. If you have the two grand to spend we highly recommend you find yourself a good one. And don’t waste your money on the Classic no matter what you may have read elsewhere.)

Speaking of bad sounding Heavy Vinyl, Speakers Corner reissued this very recording on 180g fifteen years ago or so and ruined it. Imagine that. (I happily admit their Nutcracker was quite good for a Heavy Vinyl reissue. It cannot hold a candle to a good vintage pressing but it will beat most of what’s out there on audiophile vinyl, which, truth be told, isn’t saying much.)

This Masterpiece of Ballet Music should have a place in any audiophile’s Classical Collection. Others that belong in that category can be found here.

Side One

Lovely string tone and texture, rich bass, a big hall, no smear, lovely transparency, the sound is White Hot and hard to fault. The miking is tasteful, with much less spotlighting than most of the classical recordings we play.

Side Two

That gorgeous clarinet says it all, so rich and Tubey Magical — no other copy had that sound!

This side has what we would consider to be the best sound in the set. It’s very dynamic, with the most space. Three pluses is our top grade but I would be tempted to go higher. Listen to the Act 2, Scene 10 excerpt to hear what I mean.

Side Three

The rich strings, especially the basses, are glorious here. No smear, clear with lots of energy, the sound here is close to that of sides one and two.

Side Four

Good weight and dynamic energy, the sound here is sweet and rich just the way a 1958 recording should be.

Production and Engineering

I believe, though have not been able to confirm, that James Walker was the producer and Roy Wallace the engineer for these sessions from 1958 in Geneva’s glorious-sounding Victoria Hall. It’s yet another remarkable disc from the Golden Age of Vacuum Tube Recording.

The gorgeous hall the Suisse Romande recorded in was possibly the best recording venue of its day, possibly of all time; more amazing sounding recordings were made there than any other hall we know of. There is a richness to the sound that exceeds all others, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least. It’s as wide, deep, and three-dimensional as any, which is, of course, all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the weight and power of the brass and the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

These are the kind of records that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. None of them, I repeat not a single one of them, can ever begin to sound the way this record sounds.

Quality record production is a lost art, and it’s been lost for a very long time.

Swan Lake

Today, Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake remain sure-fire hits for ballet companies around the world. It’s remarkable, then, that when Swan Lake was premiered in 1877, the reception it garnered was lukewarm at best. Never mind what the audiences back then thought: it was the dancers who gave the composer a particularly hard time, declaring his music to be simply too difficult to dance to. Music of such richness and depth was not, they thought, the kind that should accompany their balletic moves.

In Russian culture, the swan was the ultimate image of female purity; some have therefore argued that this was the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s music. More likely, though, is that the idea for Swan Lake came from a sweet children’s dance which the composer first heard at his sister’s country house in 1871.

Today, the ballet is adored by young and old: from the graceful Waltz in Act I to the playful Dance of the Cygnets, this is wonderfully innocent music. Tchaikovsky evidently enjoyed composing the music for Swan Lake, writing far more material than would ever be required. Indeed, the version most commonly encountered today is, in fact, an edited one, created after Tchaikovsky’s death and considerably shorter than the original, full-length work. It’s now the world’s most frequently performed ballet.

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