excerpts from the ballets
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Efrem Kurtz
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2001
CD No: EMI CZS 5 74308 2 (2 CDs)
Three LPs become two CDs – a great idea to bring together these highly-regarded recordings. While one can have reservations sometimes about digital mastering (even more about so-called no-noise processes) neat repackaging such as this not only re-circulates recorded documents from an earlier era but does so in a form, and a price (these CDs sell as one full-price release), that will appeal to the serious collector for the intrinsic qualities of Kurtz’s conducting, and the more general listener who will welcome generous selections from these very popular ballet scores.
With round about 50 minutes from each ballet, anyone not requiring the whole works – the full Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are both about 150 minutes long – but would like the best-known sections, this ’twofer’ is an excellent choice; for The Nutcracker, the shortest and perhaps the most miraculous of Tchaikovsky’s ballet-trio, this two-thirds choice is more comprehensive, Kurtz offering the familiar suite plus several other wonderful numbers.
Recorded in 1958 and 1959 in the excellent acoustics of London’s Kingsway Hall, these Philharmonia Orchestra tapings preserve the work of Russian-born, American citizen, Efrem Kurtz (1900-95). He worked often with the Philharmonia and made quite a few records with it (including the First and Tenth Symphonies of Shostakovich); no stranger to symphonic repertoire, Kurtz was a very experienced ballet conductor – Ballet Russe, Isadora Duncan, Pavlova – and therefore conducts these scores from the inside, with an insight into the choreography and scenario of each ballet.
Kurtz’s are not bandstand or exaggeratedly over-blown readings; rather the music is direct, kept on the move, but not to the detriment of the music’s lyricism (and what a fund of melody this music has) or its climactic power – Tchaikovsky’s brilliant scoring is sensitively etched and charted expertly to resolution.
A word about the stereo sound. As re-mastered, there is a shrillness to upper registers – cymbals sound rather fizzy, strings lack optimum richness – and the bass tends to be a tad ’shy’ at times; the plus side is the amount of audible detail (naturally balanced in a ’real’ perspective) and the clarity of internal part-writing. The Philharmonia’s woodwind section is particularly evident and contributes much characterful playing.
I have one reservation about Kurtz’s conducting – it can be inflexible. Perhaps his years in the pit conducting for countless stagings brought with it a discipline that he couldn’t shake-off when leading the music without dancers. That said, he’s always a sensitive guide and can be surprisingly yielding; he finds the Philharmonia responsive to his requirement for restraint, tip-toe pointing and considered blending of colour – rhythms are buoyant, lyrical expanse expressive. The Nutcracker’s more fantastic episodes are rendered with affecting atmosphere, Sleeping Beauty’s elegance is well conveyed, and Swan Lake’s drama is not neglected. Yehudi Menuhin is a loving and communicative guest-violin in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.
This is fresh and vigorous music-making with no shortage of narration. When Tchaikovsky’s ballet-music is the order of the day, these very likeable performances will handsomely repay the modest outlay to acquire them.