Russian State Symphony (Yablonsky) - Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake

Russian State Symphony (Yablonsky) – ‘Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake’ A DVD-Audio review by Chris Salocks

This recent Yablonsky/Russian State Symphony Naxos release of ‘Swan Lake’ is welcome, providing a real (and generally superior) alternative to the Abravanel/Utah Symphony performance. And although this Naxos DVD-Audio recording was released at about the same time as the Silverline Classics DVD-Audio reissue of the Abravanel/Utah Symphony performance, I’m devoting most of this review to the Yablonsky recording, but with frequent cross-references to the Abravanel.

There seem to be some misconceptions floating around in cyberspace (e.g., on message boards) as to how complete each of these performances is. The Naxos recording is clearly labeled “highlights”, while the Silverline labeling implies that Abravanel’s performance is complete. The table found upon our technical details page, based on the Kalmus/Belwin Mills reprint of the Soviet edition of the Tchaikovsky complete works, may help listeners sort out who plays what. (I gratefully acknowledge the precedent for this idea in ‘High Fidelity’ magazine, maybe 40 or 45 years ago. I’m relying on memory, but I believe the reviewer was R. D. Darrell.)

The two performances are thus roughly comparable in terms of playing time, with Abravanel including more from the first act but omitting a couple of selections in the fourth act as well as the supplementary material which Yablonsky includes. The difference in total time may also be accounted for by the fact that Yablonsky often adopts more rapid tempi than Abravanel does. (Please note too the cuts and missing repeats in both performances as listed in the table.)

It should be emphasized that both of these recordings are extremely generous in terms of playing time – well beyond what is possible for single CD’s to contain. They’re both exceptional value! (It should also be mentioned here that the SACD version of Yablonsky performance may be an even better value for some listeners since it includes the complete ballet – truly complete – spread out over two discs for the price of one budget SACD. However, in a spot check comparison, I found the sound of the SACD lacking in some of the focus of the DVD-Audio.)

That said, I’m a little puzzled at one of Naxos’ choices of music included on the DVD-Audio version. The finale of the first act begins with substantially the same music as the opening number of the second act – not even the key is changed. It’s a bit disconcerting to go from track 5 to track 6 of the Yablonsky recording – if you don’t know the ballet well, you might think your player is malfunctioning and has started to repeat track 5. Since the complete ballet can’t be accommodated on one disc anyway, why didn’t Naxos include another selection instead of two succeeding tracks with so much repetition? (The first act finale is wisely omitted from Abravanel’s performance.)

As for the performance, Yablonsky may remind listeners of the old pre-stereo Dorati/Minneapolis Symphony recording on Mercury in its forward thrust and refusal to linger. Reviewers used to be fond of making distinctions between “concert tempos” and “dance tempos” in performances of this music. I always found that distinction silly, since one might logically assume that “dance tempos” would depend on whose choreography was being used. In any case, Yablonsky (at least on the basis of this performance) could never be accused of indulging imaginary dancers! In some sections, Abravanel demonstrates a lighter touch than Yablonsky does – a characteristic which some listeners may prefer.

The orchestral execution on the part of the Russian State Symphony is generally top-notch, even brilliant, with admirable playing from all soloists. It’s strange to hear most Russian orchestras these days, with their sound quality having grown so “international” that they seem to have lost all trace what we used to think of as Russian timbre – especially in the brass. To some listeners, this loss of what was once a characteristic tone quality is yet another indicator of blandness creeping into modern performances, but at the same time, other listeners might feel that the improvement in intonation characteristic of modern Russian orchestras surely offsets the loss of an individualistic timbre (which, it must be admitted, not all listeners cared for anyway). In Abravanel’s performance, we again encounter the somewhat anemic sounding Utah Symphony string section, but this is less of a problem in Swan Lake than in the Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony previously reviewed on this site, and the playing of his first-desk string soloists is first-rate.

Sonically, the Naxos recording is excellent with attractive depth and resonance to the sound. As usual in this high-resolution series from Russia, the microphone placement and mixing are subtle, producing natural sounding results and allowing for a corresponding subtlety in the playing. I generally prefer the microphones to be slightly closer to the action, but overall, this recording is another winner from Studio 5 at the Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House. If you know any of the earlier releases in this series (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky), you’ll know what to expect from this release. The 5.1 surround sound adds tremendously to the realism of the listening experience, with the rear channels used for hall (or, in this case, studio) ambiance.

Unfortunately, the sampling rate is only 48kHz (also like the other releases in this series), rather the 96kHz which should be standard for the DVD-Audio multi-channel format. (The Abravanel, like most releases so far in the Silverline Classics reissue series is 96kHz, derived from the original Vanguard analogue tapes. However, Abravanel’s ‘Swan Lake’ is the one item in the Utah Symphony series so far where the DVD-Audio authoring seems not to have been applied correctly, resulting in gaps of silence and/or hesitations between some sections spanned by more than one track.)

The Yablonsky and Abravanel recordings occupy a kind of intermediate zone of comprehensiveness within the range of Swan Lake recordings: neither is truly complete, yet both contain substantially more music than an excerpts CD. For this reason, they are more comparable to one another than to single disc excerpts from the ballet or genuinely complete performances of it. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, I prefer the Yablonsky to the Abravanel overall because of the Russian orchestra’s generally superior playing, Yablonsky’s more intense approach, and the absence of DVD-Audio authoring problems on the Naxos release. And if you insist on completeness, the Yablonsky performance on SACD fulfills that need.

‘Swan Lake’ DVD-Audio Disc Differences (Technical details)

Act / Number / Section / Sub-section (Tempo) Yablonsky / Russian State
(Naxos) – Track Numbers
Abravanel / Utah Sym
(Silverline) – Track Numbers
Introduction (Moderato Assai) Track 1 Track 1
Act 1
No. 1: Scène (Allegro giusto) Track 2 Track 2
No. 2: Valse (Tempo di valse) Track 3 (missing repeats) Track 3 (missing repeats)
No. 3 Scene (Allegro moderato)
No. 4 Pas de trois
i. Intrada (Allegro) Track 4
ii. (Andante sostenuto)
iii. (Allegro simplice) Track 5
iv. (Moderato) Track 6
v. (Allegro) Track 7
vi. Coda (Allegro vivace) Track 8
No. 5 Pas de deux
i. (Tempo di valse) Track 9
ii. (Andante…Allegro) Track 10
iii. (Tempo di valse) Track 11
iv. Coda (Allegro molto vivace) Track 4 Track 12
No. 6 Pas d’action
No. 7 Sujet Track 13
No. 8 Danse des coupes Track 14
No. 9 Finale (Andante) Track 5 (with a cut)
Act 2
No. 10 Scène (Moderato) Track 6 Track 15
No. 11 Scène (Allegro moderato) Track 7 Track 16
No. 12 Scène (Allegro) Track 17
No. 13 Danse des cygnes
i. (Tempo di valse) Track 8 Track 18
ii. (Moderato assai) Track 9 Track 19
iii. (Tempo di valse) Track 10
iv. (Allegro moderato) Track 11 Track 20
v. Pas d’action (Andante) Track 12 Track 21
vi. Tout le monde danse (Tempo di valse) Track 13 Track 22
vii. Coda (Allegro vivo) Track 14 Track 23
No. 14 Scène (Moderato) Track 15
Act 3
No. 15 (Allegro giusto) Track 16 Track 24
No. 16 Danses du corps de Ballet et des nains (Moderato assai)
No. 17 Scène (Allegro) Track 17 (with cuts) Track 25 (with cuts)
No. 18 Scène (Allegro) Track 26
No. 19 Pas de six (Moderato assai)
No. 20 Danse hongroise Czardas (Moderato assai) Track 22 Track 29
No. 21 Danse éspagnole (Allegro non troppo – Tempo di bolero) Track 23 Track 27
No. 22 Danse napolitaine (Allegro moderato…Andantino quasi moderato) Track 24 Track 28
No.23 Mazurka (Tempo di mazurka) Track 25 (with cuts) Track 30 (missing repeats)
No. 24 Scène (Allegro) Track 26 Track 31
Act 4
No. 25 Entr’acte (Moderato) Track 27
No. 26 Scène (Allegro non troppo) Track 28
No. 27 Danses des petits cygnes (Moderato) Track 29 Track 32
No. 28 Scène (Allegro agitato) Track 30 Track 33
No. 29 Scène finale (Andante) Track 31 Track 34
Appendix (for Act 3)
Pas de deux
i. Introduction (Moderato) Track 18
ii. Variation I (Allegro moderato) Track 19
iii. Variation II (Allegro) Track 20
iv. Coda (Allegro molto vivace) Track 21
Total Time 1 hour 31 min 49 sec 1 hour 40 min 53 sec