Monday 23 November 2020

Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet

Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY
Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Kristjan Järvi and his orchestra give a dramatically engaging account of the conductor's new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet, which fizzes with energy

Tchaikovsky's ballets remain somewhat problematical on disc, even leaving aside the Swan Lake version controversy (whether to perform the music as written, or as used in the well-known version of the ballet created after the composer's death). Do you perform a tasty selection of nuggets, or the whole beast? This latter can have its longeurs. I well remember performances of Sleeping Beauty by the Royal Ballet where younger members of the audience, looking forward to the delights of fairies and such, got rather bored with all the walking-about-to-music particularly in the first act, and this can be reflected in complete performances of the ballets. Without any visual stimulus the more functional music can seem a little underwhelming. But if you cut, how do you give the music dramatic context? There is also the vexed question of tempo, to perform it as suitable for ballet dancers, or how the conductor feels it should go.
Kristjan Järvi has taken on the challenge and in his new version of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty he has condensed the three-hour ballet down to 70 minutes, creating in the process what he describes as a dramatic symphony. The music is selected not a series of bon bouches, though there are plenty of those, but played as a dramatic continuum. The new version was premiered by Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic on a tour to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Russia, and the recording was done in St Petersburg (where they performed the work at the Mariinsky Theatre) and is now issued on Sony Classical.

The musicians were all playing from memory.

Of this, Järvi says in the CD booklet that it is not done to show off, but 'to evolve the orchestra as an art form into a living, breathing organism where the main sensation is not reading music but expressing ourselves intuitively and building collective trust in our innate intelligence. This frees us from concentrating on prerequisites and allows us to focus on the delivery of the message, and on reaching to the emotional core of each other and our audience.'

The result is performed with all the élan and bravura that we associate with the orchestra. It feels like a single coherent piece with some vivid story telling. Those who know the ballet well will notice the missing bits, but I enjoyed the sheer narrative sweep of the performance. And Järvi's tempos flow in a very symphonic way, you cannot always imagine dancers doing Petipa's choreography, but in terms of Tchaikovsky's symphonic music, the tempos usually feel right. There is, however, the odd surprising moment, so that the 'Rose Adage' seems to have a sweep to it which I have rarely felt in the theatre (and perhaps it needs it!).

Tchaikovsky wrote Sleeping Beauty in 1889, the second of his three ballets. The first, Swan Lake, had been written for The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1875-76 when Tchaikovsky had worked from a scenario and a rough indication of musical requirements for each dance from the choreographer. When in 1889, Tchaikovsky was invited to write the music for Sleeping Beauty for the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, he received not only a more detailed scenario but highly detailed (not quite bar by bar, but nearly) set of requirements from choreographer Marius Petipa. The work premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 15 January 1890.

Tchaikovsky effectively revolutionised Russian ballet music. Before him, composers such as Ludwig Minkus and Cesare Pugni were specialists, writing almost nothing but ballet music which was effective and functional. Tchaikovsky was interested in creating a dramatic work, rather than a simple sequence of decorative dances. That he had a great gift for melody and could write dance music fluently as a benefit, but where his real distinction lies in his ability to create a sense of atmosphere and feeling of drama. The composer considered Sleeping Beauty to be one of his finest works,

Sleeping Beauty is a somewhat curious ballet. For all the title role's technical challenges (of which there are many) the heroine does not appear until Act Two, during Act Three she is largely asleep and in Act Four others mainly get to celebrate her marriage. The hero does not appear until Act Three and the role is woefully underwritten in the original. This version takes us away from worrying about that, Järvi and his players perform with a considerable sense of joy, so that the big ensemble scenes can positively fizz, whilst Järvi's speeds avoid the sentimentalising of the music.

Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty - designed by Maria Björnson - Royal Ballet
Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty - designed by Maria Björnson - Royal Ballet
(Photo Royal Opera House)

Sometimes, Tchaikovsky's symphonies (particularly the earlier ones) feel as if they have an unseen corps de ballets waiting in the wings, so it is fascinating to hear the roles reversed and his ballet turned into a coherent symphonic work. This is a dramatic work, Järvi and his orchestra make sure that we appreciate that.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Sleeping Beauty, dramatic symphony arr. Kristjan Järvi
Baltic Sea Philharmonic
Kristjan Järvi (conductor)
Recorded on 20 March 2019 at Dom Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia
SONY 19439786612 1CD [68:34]

Available from Amazon,

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