TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker / Swan Lake (Michael Halasz/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550050)
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840- 1893)
The music of Tchaikovsky, in spite of the reservations of contemporaries athome and abroad, must seem to us both essentially Russian and essentially andfirmly in the West European tradition. In Vienna the critic Eduard Hanslick wasable to complain of the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the finale of theViolin Concerto, but in Russia Tchaikovsky never went far enough to please theself- appointed leader of musical nationalists, Balakirev. While by no means aminiaturist, he nevertheless excelled in his mastery of the smaller formsnecessary in ballet, writing music that displayed his remarkable gifts of melodyand skill in orchestration.
Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, the son of a chief inspector of mines inGovernment service in Votkinsk and educated at first at home by a belovedgoverness and later at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, inpreparation for a career in the Ministry of Justice. This he was to abandon in1863, when he entered the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory, thefirst of its kind in Russia. Three years later he joined the staff of the newConservatory in Moscow, directed by Nikolay. Rubinstein, brother of the composerand pianist Anton Rubinstein, who had founded its counterpart in St. Petersburg.
Tchaikovsky, abnormally sensitive and diffident, and tormented by his ownhomosexuality that seemed to isolate him from the society of the time, hadalready made a considerable impression as a composer, when an unwise,face-saving marriage in 1877 brought complete nervous collapse and immediateseparation from his new wife. In 1878 he was able to resign from theConservatory, thanks to the assistance of a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, whomhe was never to meet but who offered him both financial and moral support. Afterthe St. Petersburg performance of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky died, it isthought by his own hand compelled to this step by a court of honour of hisfellows from the School of Jurisprudence, after threats of exposure and scandalresulting from a liaison with a young nobleman. His death was widely mournedboth in Russia and abroad, where his music had won considerable favour.
Tchaikovsky's compositions include three full-length ballets, Swan Lake,The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. The first of these had itsearly origin in a home entertainment devised for the children of his sisterSasha, who had settled at Kamenka in the Ukraine. The adult ballet was completedin 1876 in response to a commission from the Imperial Theatre Directorate inMoscow and was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre there in March, 1876, withchoreography by the Austrian, Wenzel Reisinger. The work was unfavourablyreceived, its music seeming unusually substantial for the occasion, and theproduction inept. The ballet was to win success after the composer's death, whenit was mounted at the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg in 1895, with choreography byIvanov and Marius Petipa. The score served to re-establish the importance ofmusic in ballet, after years in which it had been generally neglected in favourof the activity on stage.
The libretto of Swan Lake is based on an old German fairy-story, printed inthe collection by Johann Karl August Musaeus, at the height of Romantic interestin matters of this kind. Princess Odette has been changed into a white swan bythe wicked magician Rotbart. Prince Siegfried meets Odette in human form by thelake and swears to marry her, but Rotbart attempts to frustrate this plannedbreaking of his spell by substituting his own daughter, Odile, in the form of a black swan, for Odette. Rotbart is nearly successful in his malicious design,but is defeated in the end by the power of love, as Siegfried and Odette areunited, al though in some versions of the ballet the pair are united not in lifebut in death in a storm conjured up by Rotbart.
The ballet opens with a celebration of Siegfried's coming of age, a time atwhich he should choose a bride. The appearance of a flight of swans suggestedthe idea of a swan-hunt, on which the Prince and his friends set out. In thesecond act Siegfried, separated from his companions, meets Odette, who explainsto him her sad fate, incurring the immediate wrath of Rotbart. Siegfried invitesher to a ball at the castle, the scene of the third act. There Siegfried is tochoose a bride and is deceived by the appearance of Rotbart and his daughterOdile, in the guise of Odette. He pledges his faith to Odile, a clap of thunderis heard and Rotbart and Odile disappear in triumph, while Siegfried fallssenseless to the ground. In the final act, by the lake, Odette reproachesSiegfried and warns him of her coming death, but Siegfried defies Rotbart andthe lovers are united.
The present recording includes the famous music for the swans, bewitched byRotbart, dances from the Ball at the Palace of Siegfried in Act III, withHungarian, Spanish and Neapolitan diversions, and the final scene.
Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty was first performed in St.
Petersburg in 1890, damned with the faintest of praise by the Tsar, who remarkedthat it was 'very nice". The composer himself was much less satisfied withhis final score, for The Nutcracker, proposed by Marius Petipa and theImperial Theatre Directorate in 1891 and first performed at the Maryinsky inDecember, 1892, again to a cool reception. The music itself, however, hadalready proved popular enough in a suite arranged by Tchaikovsky for a concertearlier in the year.
The story of the ballet is drawn from E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale, OcrNussknacker und der Maeuserkoenig. Set in the eighteenth century, initiallyin the house of the President of one of the German states of the period, theballet opens with a children's Christmas party, at which Drosselmeyer, aslightly sinister adult, brings presents, a doll for Clara, the daughter of thehouse, and a toy soldier for Franz, her brother. When the children are told notto open their presents, Drosselmeyer quietens them by giving the two a pair ofnutcrackers, promptly broken by Franz, who tries to crack the biggest nut he canfind.
At night Clara creeps down to see her broken Nutcracker, and is alarmed atthe open warfare that breaks out between the Mouse-king and his army and theGinger-bread soldiers by the Christmas tree. With a well-aimed shoe, she routsthe enemy, and is invited by the Nutcracker, now transformed into a handsomeprince, to visit the Kingdom of Sweets, an opportunity for welcome by theSnow-king and Snow-queen and a series of character dances, including the famousDance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with its then novel use of the cetesta, anddances celebrating Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, China tea, the Russiantrepak, and the old woman who lived in a shoe.
Included on the present recording are the Overture, the March of thechildren, as they play, and some of the dances of the Second Act divertissement,where we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Russian Trepak, and other items "ofthe entertainment offered to Clara and her Prince by the Snow-king andSnow-queen.
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, established as a professional orchestra inBratislava (formerly Pressburg) in 1949, has won itself a considerablereputation during its relatively short existence.
Slovakia, which, with Bohemia and Moravia, became the Republic of Czecho-Slovakiain 1918, was the source of a great deal of music during the years of theHabsburg Empire. This mus