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 Recording of the Week  Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty from Neeme Järvi

I have a stunning new recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty to tell you about this week. It has arrived courtesy of a new project from Chandos to record all three Tchaikovsky ballets in their complete scores with Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic.

Neeme Järvi
Neeme Järvi

The Sleeping Beauty was actually the second of the three ballets Tchaikovsky wrote, and dating from 1888/9, it came twelve years after Swan Lake. The big gap was probably due to the fact that, although acclaimed now, Swan Lake had not been well received at the first performance – with near-unanimous criticism for the dancers, the orchestra and the décor. Meanwhile Tchaikovsky’s score was considered far too complicated for ballet and was described as “ too noisy, too Wagnerian, and too symphonic”!

Twelve years later it was the invitation of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, that persuaded Tchaikovsky to return to the genre, and this fairy-tale theme based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant appealed to the composer and he set to work with great enthusiasm, completing the whole score in what he claimed was only forty days.

The ballet focuses on the two main conflicting forces of good (the Lilac Fairy) and evil (Carabosse), and, making clear that the criticisms aimed at Swan Lake were in fact exactly what Tchaikovsky intended, he gave the these two characters a representative leitmotif which returns at several points during the nearly three hours of music. Furthermore the gradual build-ups to climaxes and the repetition, variation and developments on key themes make the work sound very symphonic, and remind me in particular of the composer’s Fifth Symphony (which is not at all surprising as it was written just before).

The ballet’s première was much better received than Swan Lake, and it quickly became one of the most popular ballets in the repertoire. In the theatre it is still frequently performed with a number of cuts so it is good to have the opportunity here to actually hear all of the composer’s wonderful music.

Järvi's tempos generally verge on the fast side of what you may be used to, and while I’m not convinced that every bar could be danced to at these speeds, this is after all a recording rather than a backing track for a ballet performance, and it unquestionably works in delivering thrilling climaxes and genuine excitement.

The orchestral playing is ravishing, and the sound – ranging from shimmering cymbals to rasping brass – is superbly captured by Ralph Couzens and his team. If you have an SACD player you’ll be particularly blown away, but even the standard CD mix is mightily impressive.

Finally, if you needed any more reasons to buy this wonderful recording then they come in the form of the playing of the two guest string soloists - James Ehnes (violin) and Robert deMaine (cello). Both players combine technical perfection and richness of tone in their short but notable contributions, and James Ehnes in particular (who plays in all three acts) makes such a ravishing sound that it is hard to imagine they have ever been bettered.

I’m told Swan Lake will follow in 2013 and The Nutcracker in 2014, and on this evidence this will quickly become one of the great cycles on disc.

Sound samples as usual via the link below. Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66

James Ehnes (violin), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC