Friday, August 03, 2007

Three Russian Ballet Scores

After our extended bout of listening to American music, Joshua and I decided to listen to something completely different, so we choose three full-length Russian ballet scores. We are enjoying them enormously.

Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, on the RCA label

Gliere’s “The Red Poppy”, performed by the Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Andre Anichanov, on the Naxos label

Prokofiev’s “Cinderella”, performed by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

The Leonard Slatkin “Swan Lake” is the finest “Swan Lake” recording I have ever heard. It is a magnificent performance, completely captivating, beautifully played and beautifully conducted and beautifully recorded.

I have no idea whether this is the finest “Swan Lake” ever recorded---this is not a work I have bothered to listen to often, because it is so familiar and because there are innumerable recordings of the work available, far too many for me to try to audition them all—but I have never heard so capable and convincing a performance of the work.

Personally, I was stunned at the excellence of this recording, because it was so unexpected. Prior to listening to this recording, I had already heard Slatkin’s full-length “The Sleeping Beauty” on RCA, recorded around the same time as Slatkin’s “Swan Lake”, and Slatkin’s “The Sleeping Beauty” is a complete dud of a recording, probably the very dullest account of that score I have ever heard.

But the Slatkin “Swan Lake”, unlike his “The Sleeping Beauty”, comes fully to life, perhaps because its musical and dramatic requirements are far less demanding than those of its later and incomparably greater counterpart.

In fact, I believe that this “Swan Lake” is the finest of all Slatkin Saint Louis recordings (most of which are now out of print)—and I think that I have heard all of Slatkin’s Saint Louis commercial recordings.

Most of Slatkin’s Saint Louis recordings were recorded subsequent to a series of fully-rehearsed performances in the concert hall, and those recordings were, by and large, competent but dull. Slatkin is not a musician who, in a run of concerts, gets better and better with each repeat performance. In fact, the reverse is true—in a run of performances, Slatkin gets more and more boring with each repeat performance.

The Slatkin “Swan Lake” was not, I believe, recorded after a run of performances in the concert hall, and this works to the recording’s advantage. This performance was created in the recording studio, and the musicians did not have time to grow bored with Slatkin’s routine music-making. Further, the complete score of “Swan Lake” is seldom performed outside of the theater, so the musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony would have approached the full score with fresh ears and a complete lack of ennui. The liveliness of the results can be heard in the recording.

Oddly, most of Slatkin’s finer recordings were all recorded, not with his own orchestra in Saint Louis, but in London, with British orchestras—and I think I know the reason for this unexpected situation.

London orchestras sight-read very well, and are accustomed to working quickly, and there is often a seat-of-the-pants quality to London recordings—and these unfavorable working conditions, perversely, are very friendly to second-rate conductors. Because everyone—musicians and conductors—must work under the strict requirements of the clock, and under some stress, everyone must pay acute attention during a London recording session. There is a “live” quality to such work, which would not necessarily be present in a recording made at the conclusion of a run of fully-rehearsed performances under a less-than-inspiring conductor.

Slatkin is not a conductor I generally admire, but he has made several fine recordings with London orchestras, including at least one great recording: Edward Elgar’s concert overture, “In The South (Alassio)”, a work which receives its very finest recorded performance on disc in his hands. (Alas, its original coupling, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, occasionally comes to life, but it is, on the whole, a very depressing performance.)

The Slatkin Saint Louis “Swan Lake” is similar to some of his London recordings: it is brimming with life, with some degree of electricity, and some degree of tension, and some degree of drama, and some degree of flair. It is the only one of his countless Saint Louis recordings that remains interesting from start to finish.

Further, the Saint Louis Symphony of the late 1980’s, when these discs were recorded, was a much finer ensemble than any of the London orchestras of the time, with a much richer string sound and with a much higher level of ensemble balance and accuracy. This recording reveals, more than any other Slatkin Saint Louis recording, how well Slatkin had drilled the orchestra into a major ensemble.

By the time Slatkin departed Saint Louis, in the mid-1990’s, the musicians of the orchestra had grown tired of him, and bored, and the musicians were growing increasingly frustrated, if not irritated, at Slatkin’s lack of depth in the Central European repertory (and they were complaining about this particular shortcoming openly; musician complaints had reached the pages of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch). The late 1980’s were the high point of the Slatkin era in Saint Louis, and this recording captured the Saint Louis Symphony at perhaps its finest moment. I am surprised that this recording is so little-known, because it is a joy from start to finish. The recording quality is outstanding.

Until Josh and I listened to the Naxos disc of Reinhold Gliere’s complete score to “The Red Poppy”, I had only heard the suite derived from the full score. Neither of us was expecting much of anything from this set of discs, because Gliere’s reputation, in general, is pretty low and because this score’s reputation, in particular, is even lower. More than anything, Josh and I were simply curious to hear the full score of this ballet once or twice, and leave it at that.

Happily, we have been pleasantly surprised, because this score is a real find, and a real treasure. “The Red Poppy” is a masterful, Tchaikovskian full-length ballet score, the finest such score written by a Russian composer other than Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. It is light years better than comparable and better-known scores churned out by Minkus or Khachaturian or Shostakovich, none of which has the confidence and allure of “The Red Poppy”. It is regrettable that this marvelous score is so little known.

The story of the ballet has something to do with its absence from the world’s stages. Premiered in 1927, the ballet is from the period in which communism was still held to be a coherent and valid ideology, and it tells the story of Russian sailors helping to free the “coolies” of China from the shackles of class oppression as well as from assorted Western decadent influences. The plot of the ballet could have written by Comintern. The story is further discomfiting, for modern audiences, by its overt opium affiliations.

The Bolshoi Ballet brought “The Red Poppy” to the U.S. on one occasion, in the 1950’s, but that was the ballet’s only presentation in North American by a Russian troupe. The ballet was not well-received here on that single presentation, and it has never established a place in the repertory outside of Russia.

In Russia, the ballet was later renamed “The Red Flower” to remove the opium association, and it was later “modernized” to remove some of the more cartoonish characterizations of the Chinese “coolies”.

Because of the strength of its score, I think that this ballet could be made to work today, and work admirably, if it were to be staged in a style faithful to the original, and mounted as a period piece. Gliere’s story-telling instinct is strong, and his characteristic dances are quite colorful and enjoyable, and he knows how to build tension and drama through a series of set-pieces. His handling of the orchestra is masterful.

I think that “The Red Poppy” is an important score, and I am glad that we chose to listen to this set of discs. Our curiosity about the score has turned to admiration.

Act I is the best act of the score. The Act I central Pas De Deux is magnificent—10,000 cymbal crashes and all—and “The Russian Sailors’ Dance” is a perfect exclamation point to end the ballet’s first act. Acts II and III are almost as good as Act I. Josh and I both enjoy listening to this ballet.

I believe that the Naxos disc is the only audio recording of the complete score ever made, or at least released in the West. The performance is a good one, and the recording quality is fine.

Prokofiev’s score for “Cinderella” is not as memorable as his score for “Romeo And Juliet”, but it is still a very fine effort. The individual numbers are not as developed as the individual numbers of “Romeo And Juliet”, and this prevents the score from achieving the symphonic cohesion of the “Romeo” score as well as building up the necessary head of steam to propel the story forward. In addition, the music of Act III is not as inspired as the music for the first two acts, and the ballet ends on a weak note, petering out early in Act III as it limps to its lame conclusion.

It nevertheless provides a fun listening experience, and this performance is an excellent one. In general, I have never been enthusiastic about Pletnev’s work as a conductor, but this disc represents him very well. In fact, it is the finest disc of Pletnev on the podium that I have heard.

This set of discs also includes “Summer Nights”, a suite take from Prokofiev’s comic opera, “Betrothal In A Monastery”, written at the same time as “Cinderella”. It is a pleasurable composition, but its melodic material is not especially memorable, which surely accounts for its rarity in the concert hall. The opera itself, however, is supposed to be one of Prokofiev’s very greatest masterpieces, according to scholars and to those fortunate enough to have heard one of its few presentations.

Joshua has loved listening to these ballet scores, and so have I. The line of great Russian ballet scores, from Tchaikovsky through Stravinsky, has died out now and will probably never be renewed. However, the eighty years between Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Stravinsky’s “Agon” constituted a pretty good run.


  1. Would you recommend picking up any of the discs you mentioned?

  2. Dan, the Slatkin "Swan Lake" is only available now in a six-disc set including the other two Tchaikovsky ballets, and I would definitely give that set a pass. Slatkin's "Sleeping Beauty" is deadly.

    The Gliere set is cheap, and worth a listen if you like ballet scores.

    The Pletnev "Cinderella" is good, but so is Previn's set on EMI and Ashkenazy's set on Decca. All three "Cinderella" sets are excellent.