Anatole Fistoulari conducts Tchaikovsky’s Seranade and Ballet Music [Eloquence]

5 of 5 stars

Swan Lake, Op.20 [selection]*
Serenade for Strings in C, Op.48
The Nutcracker: Suite, Op.71a
Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 [selection]

London Symphony Orchestra
Anatole Fistoulari

Recorded: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 22–23 February 1961 (Swan Lake)*; Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 10–13 January 1962 (Sleeping Beauty), 13–14 November 1962 (The Nutcracker, Serenade)

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Eloquence 4829366 [2 CDs]
Duration: 153 minutes

Half a century and more ago Anatole Fistoulari’s (1907-95) name appered on many a recording – sometimes on Mercury and Philips but mostly on Decca.  He was agift to music writers because there was so much to say about his colourful career.  Son of a conductor, Fistoulari was born in Kiev in 1907.  He was a child prodigy, conducting in Bucharest aged 13 and in Berlin with the State Opera Orchestra when still in his teens.  At 26 he was conducting in Paris with the Grand Opera Russe and with Ballets Russes with whom he toured extensively.  This is probably the basis of his remarkable skill interpreting ballet music – plainly evident in his many recordings. There was also much biographical detail to write about because in 1939 he joined the French Army where he fought on the front line against the Nazi invaders. He was invalided out, and after the fall of France escaped to England where in 1943 he became conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with 120 concerts planned for his first year.  Further opportunity was given for journalists to feature him when he married Gustav Mahler’s daughter Anna.

In 1948 Fistoulari became a British citizen by which time his fruitful association with Decca had begun.  At the time his repertoire was concentrated on some of the best-loved and most popular orchestral music.  Hardly any symphonies were featured although he recorded a Beethoven 7 and a Schubert 8 shortly after the war.  Clearly evident was his immense sympathy for the music of Tchaikovsky and his consummate skill as a conductor of ballet music.  In these generous excerpts from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, each some fifty minutes in length, Tchaikovsky is performed in a manner suitable for the stage: forward-moving and strong in rhythm.

The 1961 analogue recording of Swan Lake with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is of outstanding quality – a hi-fi spectacular in its time and comparable with some of today’s best digital presentations.  Detail is immaculate and attention is at once gripped by the exciting forte that succeeds the gentle introduction – I noted in particular the realistic bass drum.  Steven Staryk provides a superb violin solo in the extensive Pas d’action scene in Act II, and throughout there is expressive playing.  Colouration and dynamic contrast abound; how subtly the colours change in the Waltz where  the early pizzicatos ring through delicately;  the final scene commences with magnificent introductory horn playing,  and Fistoulari then builds towards one of music’s great moments as the plaintive theme, first heard as an oboe solo and subtly evident during the drama, blazes into to the major key.  This, together with the magnificent orchestral sound of these final pages is spine-chilling.

Giving detailed background information, Raymond Tuttle’s excellent booklet notes provide graphic descriptions of the synopses of the ballets.  Swan Lake ends with triumphant music yet the dénouement is given a tragic description.  There are differing choreographies, for I recall seeing a performance in which the hero and heroine were together at the fall of the curtain.

As in Swan Lake the written descriptions also make it possible to imagine the various scenes of The Sleeping Beauty as the London Symphony Orchestra takes us through this generous selection with vital playing, and apart from a less colourful representation of the lower instruments, the recorded sound is almost as impressive as that given the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Fistoulari ensures that the same dancing rhythms apply.  Again, there is a scene featuring solo violin, and this is played elegantly by Hugh Maguire; it supports Aurora’s variation – a beautiful melody which in this selection is followed by the Panorama from Act II and then the famous Rose Adagio.  These three romantic sequences form a central feature of the selection and display the conductor’s sensitive understanding of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most beautiful.  In the final scene, his handling of the Apotheosis typifies the grandeur of the composition.

In the characteristic dances of The Sleeping Beauty the Three Ivans dance to authentically Russian rhythms.  In The Nutcracker the style of the Russian Dance is no less genuine, but here Fistoulari allows himself the wildest accelerando at the close – but then this is the familiar orchestral suite, it is not tied to stage performance so in the context freedom of interpretation is enlightening.  Other examples include subtle inflections given to the Waltz, revealing the essence of this ever-popular piece.

Though a favourite of chamber orchestras, there is something satisfying about the Serenade being played with a full body of strings. Here is a suitably glowing account, thoughtfully phrased and at times languorous especially in the Elégie.  The Waltz is interpreted delicately with flowing lyricism and the optimistic Finale has admirable rhythmic verve.

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