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Swan Lake Orchestral Suite, Op 20

composer
1875/1876

 
Given the hallowed position Swan Lake has occupied in the ballet repertoire for more than a century, the fact that it was a spectacular failure on its first outing might come as something of a surprise. Reviews of the initial performances of two versions performed in Moscow and St Petersburg, respectively in 1877 and 1895, tell their own story: ‘the music of Swan Lake is pallid and monotonous in the extreme’ and ‘The principal defect … is its music, and it is simply unbelievable that it was written by such a great master as the deceased P. I. Tchaikovsky.’

The composer had died two years prior to the 1895 St Petersburg revision of the ballet, and although it seems unthinkable today that the music for Swan Lake came in for such criticism, it is more a question of the dancers and choreographers of the day being wrong-footed by Tchaikovsky’s genius than his naivety as a composer for ballet. Naturally, with no Tchaikovsky around to upset matters, the choreographers, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, were more concerned with their own art than with any musical consideration. They desired a beautiful production for dancers and balletomanes rather than for the more musically inclined spectator—a production to dazzle the eye rather than please the ear. The press praised the presiding choreographer thus:

Petipa distinguished himself wonderfully well in the production of Swan Lake. An abundance of taste and talent is revealed in the composition of the dances of this ballet, in the masterful groupings of the corps de ballet and finally in the variety of the whole ensemble.

Marius Petipa is still regarded as the doyen and progenitor of twentieth Century classical ballet principles and, whatever the initial intentions, his production helped keep Tchaikovsky’s music in front of the public, opened it to further scrutiny and revision and ultimately paved the way for endlessly inventive productions. While Petipa and his choreographical cohorts were not overly concerned with the music per se, they were, in fact, merely working with the music they had inherited from previous productions and interpolating numbers to balance the dances and enhance the general theatricality of the piece. It was, however, also noted by the press that Tchaikovsky himself had been far from happy with the music and that, ‘if he were alive, this ballet would probably not have been produced on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre without preliminary alterations, as the music, excepting a few numbers, is completely unsuited for dancers.’ This is undoubtedly the case, as although the score is exceptionally beautiful, sumptuously orchestrated, immediately appealing and musically more coherent than most previous Russian ballets, it is rhythmically complex and was considered rather too much for dancers of the time. Despite this serious drawback, revealing Tchaikovsky’s lack of familiarity in collaborating effectively with the ballet masters, Swan Lake yet retains credit for redefining the role of music within the classical ballet.

Little information exists on the actual composition of the ballet’s music, except that it appears to have been derived from an entertainment provided for, or initiated by, the children of Tchaikovsky’s sister, around 1871. Music aside, the story of Swan Lake has helped in no little fashion to its continued success in ballet houses the world over. Curiously, there are also few confirmed facts on the libretto’s genesis, only hints as to the individuals, including the composer, involved in its conception and some links to Germanic and Slavic folk tales. The ballet opens with Prince Siegfried, the heir apparent at a royal court, celebrating his coming of age. He is congratulated by peasants, but also instructed by his mother that he must select a wife the following day at a birthday ball specifically designed for the pursuit of marriage. As the revelries continue, Siegfried, who would rather marry for love, runs off with his associate, Benno to hunt a flock of passing swans. The Prince and Benno are in a forest at the beginning of Act II and, just as they decide to spend the night, catch sight of the swans disappearing behind a nearby ruin. The two men investigate and with Siegfried taking aim to fell his prey, a supernatural light embraces the ruin. A beautiful vision swathed in white feathers appears. She is Odette, turned into a swan by day and a woman at night by the sorcerer, and villain of the piece, von Rothbart. Odette is attended by a group of swans-inwaiting—ladies similarly afflicted by von Rothbart’s necromancy—who reside at the lake comprised of the tears of the kidnapped Odette’s parents. The action continues with the sorcerer bringing his own daughter, Odile, to Siegfried’s ball, as the image of Odette, but clad in black. Pledges, troths, evil-doings and forgiveness eventuallybring matters to a head, when Siegfried and Odette realise they must leap to their deaths in the Swan Lake to destroy von Rothbart and preserve their everlasting love.

Not one of the many and varying suites derived from Swan Lake was ever compiled by Tchaikovsky, but the cogency of the score makes a myriad of orchestral scenarios possible. The present, generous suite is symphonic in length and brings not only the dark story to the fore, but also the finest music in the Swan Lake score.

from notes by M Ross © 2008

Recordings

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake; Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
SIGCD229Download only

Details

Movement 01: Scène
Movement 02: Valse
Movement 03: Danse des cygnes
Movement 04: Pas d'action
Movement 05: Czardas: Danse hongroise
Movement 06: Danse espagnole
Movement 07: Danse napolitaine
Movement 08: Mazurka
Movement 09: Danse des petits cygnes
Movement 10: Scène finale

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