Even when the music is Tchaikovsky at his most captivating, there is something unnatural about sitting before the record player and taking in at one time the score of an evening-length ballet. Unlike opera, where the gist of the stage action is conveyed by the words, a story ballet loses most of the dramatic continuity without its visual dimension. The continuity is further fragmented because the musical segments are, by necessity, short. They may all be gems, but they glitter more brightly if displayed selectivelY.
Recognizing this problem, a "best of all the acts" approach was followed by Tchaikovsky himself in his suite of eight dances from "The Nutcracker." The deficiency of this approach is that most of the dances are taken out of their musical contexts - that is, robbed of the carefully chosen harmonic and rhythmic juxtapositions with the dances composed to precede and follow them. Also, a mere eight dances cannot hint adequately of the full ballet's emotional variety and sweep.
"The Sleeping Beauty," one of the composer's last and finest works, is even longer than "the Nutcracker" and thus mor difficult to excerpt. Tchaikovsky never got around to it himself> and many different combinations have been tried by others - most presenting isolated tidbits from each of the four acts.
Of all excerpted versions, the roughly 45 minutes of music on "The Sleeping Beauty: Aurora's Wedding Ballet Music," with Leopold Stokowski conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra (Columbia M 34560), gives the truest measures of the score's exhilaration, bite, nobility and inventiveness. Based on a 1922 one-act version put on by the Diaghilev troupe in Paris, this suite gives us the entire last act (the pricess has been awakened and she marries and lives happily ever after) with some scattered highlights of earlier acts.
And it has a performance to match the music's quality. Of the posthumous releases of Stokowski, none so far stands quite so high as this. Throughout his almost eight decades of conducting, no one's performance of Tchaikovsky ballet music were more sumptuous, sweeping and virtuosic. here, recorded in London under Stokowski in his mid-90s, is perhaps the most memorable of all his efforts in this repertory. He did an extensive series of "Sleeping Beauty" excerpts for RCA in about 1950 (long since deleted). But this appears to be the first time he adopted the "Aurora's Wedding" formula.
Often in the theater, tempi are dictated more by the dancers' speed of footwork than by the composer's dramatic intentions. No such problem here. Stokowski plays this music as if it were a euphoric tone poem based on the theme of "The Sleeping Beauty." He manages a sense of cumulative effect rare in recorded ballet.
The emphasis on the drama, however, is not achieved at the expense of the rapidly shifting metrical patterns. Above all, There is a radiant sense of spontaneity.
The key would seem to be Stokowski's painstaking attention to interpretive details that other might cede to the orchestra. Listen to the subtle exactitude with which Stokowski moulds Tchaikovsky's wealth of melodies, and to the springy but steady rhythms that tie these together.
A spectacular example is the precise articulation of strings and winds in the mazurka. And there is the virtuoso snap of the pizzicato strings in the "Blue Bird" ipas de deux . Or, finally, the majestic sonorities of the stately ending.
All is captured in sound of notable sonic splendor. In the months after his death, a more indisputable documentation of Stokowski's talent at the height of his powers could hardly have come our way.