Tchaikovsky From One of The Great Ballet Conductors
Jeffrey Lipscomb | Sacramento, CA United States | 05/09/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995), born in St. Petersburg and a student of Glazunov, was one of the great Russian ballet conductors. This excellent 2-disc EMI set contains excerpts from Tchaikovsky's three great Ballets: Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Recorded 1958-59 in London's late lamented Kingsway Hall, these performances sound better here than they did on my old Seraphim LPs. Frankly, they sound better than most recent digital recordings, too: warm and clear sonics, with realistic balances. These are beautifully-shaped and subtly-phrased readings, and the Philharmonia back then was one of the world's greatest ensembles. The violin solos in Swan Lake are played with great sensitivity by Yehudi Menuhin.
Kurtz made too few recordings. Most of them were with the Philharmonia and included a scorching Shostakovich 10th (on Testament - see my review). Another indispensable example of his mastery was a 2-disc CD set of Russian music in EMI's deleted "Artist Profile" series, which I felt was generally a more successful recording enterprise than the recent IMG "Great Conductors" series.
Besides Kurtz, here are some other conductors who had a great affinity for Tchaikovsky's ballet music:
1. JOHN LANCHBERY, born 1923 in London, was head of Sadler's Wells and was chief conductor at the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden. He recorded my favorite complete versions of all three Tchaikovsky ballets for EMI (1982, with the Philharmonia) . They were later issued on 8 well-transferred CDs by MHS (currently out of print). Many serious ballet connoiseurs (I'm just a casual listener who doesn't attend ballets with any frequency) feel that Lanchbery had the most unerring sense of DANCEABLE tempos and theatrical drama in the business. I definitely prefer Lanchbery to Previn, who bores me to tears, and to Dorati's fast and hard-boiled Mercury recordings (although his readings are highly regarded in some quarters). Some excerpts from Lanchbery's sets have appeared on Seraphim CDs, but they suffer from that budget label's typically dull transfers .
2. ROGER DESORMIERE (1893-1963), France's leading ballet conductor, recorded (early 1950's) excerpts from all three ballets. The performances have a sophisticated elan that remains unique. The EMI CD issues of Swan Lake & Nutcracker (the latter is my favorite version of just the suite) are out of print, but some wonderful Sleeping Beauty selections are still available on Testament (see my review).
3. ANATOLE FISTOULARI (1907-1995), a child prodigy who conducted Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony in Kiev when he was age 7 (!), recorded lovely excerpts from Swan Lake & Nutcracker in the 1950's with the London Symphony. Those fine mono Decca recordings have yet to make it to CD (mine are part of a 5-LP Richmond set called "The World's Greatest Ballet Music"). Sidenote: Fistoulari married Mahler's daughter Anna.
4. YURI FAYER (1890-1971), another Kiev-born conductor, was chief conductor of the Bolshoi Ballet for about four decades before retiring in 1963. He conducted over 400 (!) performances of Swan Lake, and in the early 1950's he made largely complete recordings of all three ballets. These appeared in the U. S. on the Colosseum LP label (pretty lousy dubs of Soviet originals). Hopefully, some reputable label will get them out on CDs in decent sound. They are marvelous performances.
Stokowski recorded Tchaikovsky on various labels - his Sleeping Beauty excerpts on Cala 0522 are outrageously mannered and absolutely GREAT fun. Knappertsbusch's Nutcracker Suite with the Vienna Phil. (Decca) is surprisingly engaging. Beecham's witty 1958 live Nutcracker Suite (op. 71a) can be heard on M&A CD 631. Tchaikovsky's ballet music is a very pleasant way to compare the merits of various conductors from the past.
Michael B. Richman | Portland, Maine USA | 07/19/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a terrific CD of highlights from Tchaikovsky's great ballets, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, by Efrem Kurtz and the Philharmonia Orchestra, originally recorded in the late 1950s. There are many great recordings of the ballet highlights available on one CD -- some notables are by Karajan, Previn, Bernstein, Rostropovich and Ansermet (see my review of the latter) -- but few that stretch the highlights out over two CDs. This is great for someone who does not want the complete ballets (which occupy five to six discs), but does want a little more music than the oft-heard nuggets. This Double Forte set also has appeal for the serious collector because Kurtz and the Philharmonia always made memorable music together. I have enjoyed comparing this disc of highlights to those by Markevitch and Weldon with the Philharmonia (see my review of the latter) in order to listen to the same orchestras play the same music from approximately the same time period, yet with different conductors. There are many great choices available when it comes to excerpts of the Tchaikovsky Ballets, but if you are a novice or a connoisseur you won't be disappointed with this account by Kurtz."
Despite of the fact I have always wondered around the prestigious performance of Efrem Kurtz as suggestive depicter of atmospheres and dreamy sonorities, the time has not placed him in a better place at the moment to make any account of genuine brilliantness and sheer musical architect. Kurtz was undeniably, a genuine colorist, one of these directors of the lineage of Anatole Fistulari or Isaac Dobrowen for instance, a fine conductor whose radiant imagination fitted as ring to finger in this peerless and gild version. The Philharmonia Orchestra as always featuring a remarkable performance.
This record constitutes by itself a magnificent opportunity to approach him. Don't miss this celebrated performance. "
Expert theatrical conducting from Kurtz
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 05/21/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The Russian-born Efrem Kurtz was a famous conductor in the ballet pit, as the review below makes clear. Like antal Dorati and Robert Irving, two other estimable conductors who had a precise feeling for danceable rhythms, Kurtz puts a spring in every number on this bargain two-fer. But the late-Fifties sound is a bit thin and edgy, and since these are excerpts and not complete ballets, they compete against some great Tchaikovsky conductors in the symphonic vein: Karajan and levine are faovrites of mine in this repertoire (their selection of excerpts is only half as long as Kurtz's, however).
Certainly I would prefer Kurtz over Andre Previn, who also has bargain offerings of these three ballets on EMI but sounds earthbound by comparison. John Lancbery's super-bargain disc of excerpts from Swan Lake is another good alternative--EMI is bursting at the seams with Tchaikovksy ballets once you count in the Sawallisch accounts from Philadelphia, which are at least as good and better played than the Previn."