Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Swan Lake – ballet in four Acts (1875-1876)
The Sleeping Beauty – ballet in prologue and three Acts (1889)
The Nutcracker – ballet in two Acts (1892)
Raphael Druian (violin)
University of Minnesota Singers
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. 1953-55, Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis
THE DORÁTI EDITION ADE080 [5 CDs: 364]
Back in 2015 I reviewed recordings of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty that had been made in the early 1950s by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. They had been reissued by the Antal Doráti Centenary Society as, respectively, releases ADE023 and ADE019-020 in its wide-ranging Doráti Edition. When I recently saw that the ongoing series now included an ADE080-3 Nutcracker and an ADE080-2 Sleeping Beauty, I quite reasonably assumed that they were different performances that I’d not previously encountered. As it turned out, however, these are re-releases of those 2015 discs that have now been repackaged and reissued along with a new release of Swan Lake. Collectively they make a potentially attractive collection of Tchaikovsky’s three ballet scores and I have therefore taken the opportunity to revisit my earlier critical judgements.
Anyone who has read my reviews of ballet recordings with any regularity will know that a constant theme has been the issue of tempi, with conductors tending to align themselves with one or the other of two pretty much diametrically opposed viewpoints. My 2015 review, referenced above, explores that issue in rather greater detail, but, to reiterate the bare bones here, one school of conductors – nowadays apparently a minority – believes that the most important thing to keep in mind is that ballet music was written specifically to fit the practical requirements and physical limitations of men and women dancing energetically on a hot stage for a couple of hours or more, often in elaborate and constricting costumes. Consequently, such conductors consider that, in order to remain faithful to the composer’s original intentions in writing music specifically for a ballet, tempi must be realistic and authentically appropriate to the original purpose of the music. In other words, they should be kept within sensibly practical bounds and set neither too fast nor too slow to be performed by real life dancers under staged conditions – even when performed outside a theatre.
In contrast, the other school – these days in the majority – tends to be made up of conductors who often have no prior experience of conducting for dancers on a stage and who are positively relaxed about never having done so. Indeed, they relish the fact that their interpretations will be heard in a concert hall or else on disc in a domestic environment, often by listeners who will never have seen a danced ballet, for they consider that the emotional stimulation that is experienced by a theatre audience watching a staged ballet performance can actually be replicated – or even improved upon – in a concert or recorded performance that’s designed solely to be heard. Aiming to uncover and reveal what they see as the music’s full potential, they feel licenced to exaggerate some tempi, regardless of their practicability to dancers. They may increase the speed of the music at one particular point so as to convey a degree of excitement that must now be generated in sound alone. Alternatively, in a scene of high romance, the tempo may be slowed right down so as to emphasise and convey the fullest emotional impact of a moment that’s no longer observable on a theatrical stage. Moreover, when it comes specifically to ballets by Tchaikovsky, such conductors may also seize on the opportunity to play down what might be described as their “balletic” constituents in favour of emphasising the so-called “symphonic” elements which were Tchaikovsky’s primary innovation in ballet scoring. Thus, in a brief note attached to his 2017-2018 recording of Swan Lake (Pentatone PTC 5186 640), conductor Vladimir Jurowski argues that Tchaikovsky’s “musical structure was built as if writing a symphony, containing consecutive movements with contrasting character, and a succession of keys that creates a sense of a through-composed, symphonic musical fabric. Today it’s almost impossible to appreciate the music of the original version, unless you perform it in a concert, where there’s no need to adapt to the dance [my own emphasis] and you can play all of the music”. Needless to say, Mr Jurowski’s recording reflects that belief.
When it comes to that dichotomy of approaches, Doráti proves to be a particularly interesting case, for it would appear that, during the course of his career, he moved, very broadly speaking, from alignment with the first school of thought to the second.
In his earliest years as a conductor, heading up, in turn, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1933-1941) and New York’s Ballet Theatre (1941-1945), Doráti was working with dancers on a daily basis and was noted as a musician highly sympathetic to their practical on-stage requirements. Recordings of ballet scores that he made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1936 and 1939 certainly demonstrate that point, as you will find if you can locate an old Pearl CD (Gem 0036) that usefully collected together Le beau Danube (Johann Strauss II, arr. Desormière), Les cent baisers (d’Erlanger) and Scuola di ballo (Boccherini, arr. Françaix). Doráti was also feted as an effective arranger, famously creating several new and highly danceable ballets from existing scores – notably Graduation ball (1940, based once again on works by Strauss), Bluebeard (1941, Offenbach) and The Fair at Sorochinsk (1943, Mussorgsky).
After the Second World War, however, Doráti made a deliberate and major change in the direction of his career and concentrated instead on working with symphony orchestras. Focussing on orchestral repertoire, first in Dallas (1945-1948) and then in Minneapolis (1948-1960), seems to have modified his attitude to ballet quite substantially. According to John L. Holmes (Conductors: a record collector’s guide [London, 1988], p.74), Doráti even came, over time, to believe that performed ballet was essentially “non-musical”. As it turned out, however, the conductor never managed to rid himself entirely of his early association with music written for dancers. As a result, when, in the 1950s, technical improvements in recording and the advent of LPs allowed ballets to be recorded in full for the first time rather than merely in suites or excerpted form, he, along with the British-based conductor Anatole Fistoulari, often became the preferred choice for new recordings.
As I have often admitted in MusicWeb reviews, I adhere very much to the “practical for dancing” school of thought. Finding it difficult to listen to a ballet recording without recalling in my mind’s eye real on-stage performances, I have problems with a “let’s forget the dancers” approach to tempi that sees my imaginary performers unable to keep up in exaggeratedly fast numbers or toppling over when they can’t maintain their positions in excessively slow ones. Consequently, Doráti’s occasionally hard-driven and, to my mind, rather too frequently dancer-unfriendly approach meant that my 2015 Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty reviews were somewhat critical. I do nevertheless recognise that not everyone thinks – and listens – as I do. Indeed, it is worth mentioning that even dancers of the greatest eminence can disagree with my position, for the booklet that accompanies this CD includes the claim that that this particular Sleeping Beauty recording was actually the favourite of prima ballerina assoluta Dame Margot Fonteyn. For the purposes of this review, therefore, I’ve therefore gone back to basics, tried to put aside my personal prejudices and attempted to make the mental leap of listening to these newly reissued performances purely as non-danced musical performances – which is, no doubt, what Maestro Jurowski would have had me do in the first place.
Listened to in that manner, the three accounts on these discs certainly emerge with more than a few points in their favour. As I have already noted, one of their most consistent characteristics is the sheer drive and energy that Doráti brings to them. That undoubtedly results in some exciting moments, particularly those which are already highly dramatic in themselves. An Amazon reviewer, quoted in the booklet for The Sleeping BeautyCDs, characterises Doráti’s approach rather neatly – “Polite it isn’t, but it certainly is exciting. The opening could scare the bejesus out of you” – and, at times, it’s an approach that’s very effective. In The Sleeping Beauty, for example, the final number of Act 2 (# 20) – the pivotal moment of the whole ballet when the forces of good finally triumph over those of evil – is a particular success, with Doráti carefully unfolding a musical journey from darkness to light that builds with great tension and then sheer excitement until it’s finally capped by a tremendous and emotionally cathartic crash on the tam-tam. Similarly, the conductor delivers both the climax to Act 3 of Swan Lake, which sees not only the prince’s dreams of love but also the stricken figure of his own mother collapsing all around him, and The Nutcracker’s first Act battle between the armies of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (# 7, initiated on this occasion by a tremendous gunshot that veritably explodes out of the speakers) in uncompromising and sometimes fiercely dramatic terms.
At other, more romantic moments where some other conductors tend to indulge themselves, if not to positively swoon, Doráti’s once again tends to push the music onward, so that it emerges in a rather matter-of-fact manner: listeners putting a premium on sensibility may therefore be disappointed with his accounts of the Rose adagio (# 8a) from The Sleeping Beauty and the Journey through the snow (# 8) and the pas de deux: intrada (# 14) from The Nutcracker. The quality of the recordings made in the Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis, certainly doesn’t help such moments sound special. Although the venue was remodelled a decade ago and has since been much praised for its acoustics, these recordings demonstrate that in the mid-1950s it clearly lacked much in the way of sonic resonance. Some years ago, in a wide-ranging survey of Doráti’s recorded legacy, my MusicWeb colleague Tony Flynn observed that recordings made in the Northrop Auditorium were characterised by “a dry, boxed-in sound, with thin strings and reedy woodwind, starving the music making of richness and making for uncomfortable listening”. That judgment is perhaps a little too severe to apply uniformly to these Doráti releases. The sound of the final recording – The Sleeping Beauty – is actually pretty good and that of The Nutcracker is generally quite serviceable. A somewhat crumbly Swan Lake does, however, somewhat show its age. All three recordings would, however, have benefited from an injection of the extra sparkle and romantic glamour that might have been generated in an alternative venue.
The old Northrop’s dry acoustic does, however, have one thing going for it, for it enables us to hear plenty of orchestral fine detail, thereby revealing two particular features of Doráti’s skill as a conductor. The first is an expert control of orchestral balance which allows us to hear elements of Tchaikovsky’s scoring that often remain unheard and unappreciated in other performances. The second is his equally great command of orchestral dynamics, which he employs – not just in such obvious easy-win episodes as Nutcracker’s growing Christmas tree – to enhance each ballet’s moments of high tension and drama. Doráti’s Mercury recordings have, of course, something of a track record in the deployment of impressively loud special effects, for, apart from the previously noted Sleeping beauty tam-tam and that Nutcracker artillery blast, many readers will be familiar with the famous and prolonged cannonade in the 1958 recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. That, I seem to recall, was released with a warning not to play the disc too loudly as doing so might damage your speakers – a clever marketing trick that presumably boosted sales even if, in the process, a few ear drums may have been temporarily incapacitated.
These accounts of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets are undoubtedly of great historic interest, for Doráti was a pioneer in recording them all in full. However, even putting aside my own personal hobbyhorse that they do not reflect the composer’s original balletic intentions, they have not necessarily worn well in other respects and the deficiencies in sound reproduction will be a real issue for some listeners. It’s surely no coincidence that the five very positive reviews of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker cited in these CDs’ accompanying booklets date from 1957, 1958, 1960, 1967 and 1970 – in other words, well before their writers could have conceived of the audio standards that we expect as a matter of course today.
A final niggle about presentation – nit-picking to some, perhaps, but important to us collectors of an anally-retentive disposition. With their consecutive release numbers and cover designations as The classic Minneapolis recordings Vol. 1, 2 and 3, these ballets are clearly being marketed as an integral set (Editor’s note – there is only the one catalogue item ADE080 shown in the Doráti Society catalogue). Their presentation is, however, far from uniform. While two of the covers are headlined The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the third is emblazoned The Swan Lake ballet. A similar inconsistency is apparent in the booklet notes, where the traditional numbering of the dances is usefully included for The Sleeping Beauty but is nowhere to be found in the cases of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. A bit of cost-cutting is also suggested by inconsistencies in numbering, for while the covers present the discs as ADE 080-1, ADE 080-2 and ADE 080-3, the physical CDs inside bear the old numbers from their previous incarnations: ADE 062a and 062b (in the case of Swan Lake) and ADE 023 (The Nutcracker). Meanwhile, The Sleeping Beauty set adds further levels of zany inconsistency when its own discs are labelled ADE.019a-080.2 and ADE 020/ADE.080.2. In the cases of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker at least, it looks like existing stocks of old-numbered CDs have simply been put into newly re-numbered packaging.
Let me stress that I have the greatest admiration and respect for the enterprising and undeniably worthy Antal Doráti Centenary Society and I certainly appreciate the time and effort that its members put into producing valuable reissues that might not otherwise see the light of day in the economically straitened times in which we currently find ourselves. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to point out that would-be purchasers will be forking out a fair bit of their own cash for these three sets of discs. They deserve, I think, a little more consideration and, indeed, respect in such relatively straightforward matters as proofreading and the clear and consistent presentation of supporting material. So too, surely, does Antal Doráti himself.
Rob MaynardAvailability: The Antal Doráti Centenary Society
12-14 December 1953 (Nutcracker); 14 and 15 December 1954 (Swan Lake); 10 and 11 April 1955 (Sleeping Beauty)