Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sunday Classics preview: An old Tchaikovsky hand holds up


Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearse (1960).

by Ken

No, I still don't know what tomorrow's Sunday Classics post is going to be, but it does seem likely that one Sunday this month we're going to have a Second Annual "It's a Tchaikovsky Christmas" post, and it happens that the other CDs I mentioned last night -- of performances I always considered "basic library" items on LP (in last year's post on the Tchaikovsky ballets, I wrote in connection with Eugene Ormandy, longtime music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra: "The single LP's worth of each [of the three Tchaikovsky ballets] that he recorded for Columbia Masterworks ranks with the great Tchaikovsky on records.") but hadn't yet heard on CD -- are of music from Tchaikovsky's ballets. More often these days I listen to recordings of the complete ballets rather than excerpts, and also, since most of my listening is done "on the go," on CD, so it's been awhile since I've listened to those much-loved old Ormandy Tchaikovsky LPs.

Then this week I was rummaging through the $1.99 bins of my used-CD emporium, and what did I find but first one, then two, then all three of the Ormandy-Columbia Tchaikovsky ballets on CD. Now at regular price these would be somewhat economical for an average of 53 minutes -- though in line with what I suggested last night, 53 wonderful minutes may represent better value than 80 plodding ones. Of course, at $1.99 each, it was a no-brainer. Or at least should have been. Apparently my brain wasn't working all that well. When I got home I discovered that I had the Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty CDs, but not the Nutcracker one. I couldn't get back to the emporium till two days later, and by then it was gone.

Nevertheless, the Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty CDs easily lived up to, and perhaps exceeded, my memories. Here are some samples.

The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66

In the Introduction, note that Ormandy doesn't have to take a lickety-split tempo to create excitement. He does it with the sheer unforced power and drive and sonic luster of the Philadelphians' playing. The luster of the Philadelphia strings of that era is (or should be) legendary. In the Act III "Pas de quatre" we get a sampling of the brilliance and virtuosity of the Philadelphia woodwinds as well. Note the suppleness and ease and, where called for, lightness of touch. And for all that the recording is 48 years old, I've never heard a more beautiful orchestral recording.


Act III: Pas de quatre

Swan Lake, Op. 20

Moving backward in time to Swan Lake, from which we hear first the ravishingly shaped Act II "Pas d'action" (the violin soloist is presumably the orchestra's longtime concertmaster Anshel Brusilow), and then one of the series of national dances, the Mazurka, from Act IV.

Act II: Pas d'action

Act IV: Mazurka

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia/Sony, recorded 1961


Just because of my shoddy shopping skills? Doesn't seem quite fair.

OK, let's go back to the recording that set off last year's celebration of the Tchaikovsky ballets: the set of all three as recorded by the celebrated ballet conductor-arranger-composer John Lanchbery with the Phiharmonia Orchestra in 1981. Actually, at that time I wasn't able to let you hear any of the Lanchbery performances, which I found myself enjoying so much more on CD than I had in many attempts at the LPs. Here are the "miniature" Overture and the beautiful climax of Act I.

The Nutcracker, Op. 71


Waltz of the Snowflakes (Act I finale)

Ambrosian Singers (in the "Waltz of the Snowflakes"), Philharmonia Orchestra, John Lanchbery, cond. EMI, recorded 1981


The current list is here.

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