AROUND THIS time of year ballet companies announce their Christmastide performances of "The Nutcracker" and record companies schedule releases of Tchaikovsky's much-loved music for that ballet. This year, though, instead of another complete "Nutcracker," we have a new complete "Sleeping Beauty," played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky in a three-record Eurodisc set from Germany (300 575-435). Although "Sleeping Beauty" has never enjoyed the popularity of"Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker," it is the most imaginative and most thoroughly original of Tchaikovsky's three ballets. The subject was one that especially appealed to him, and the music is in the same rich vein as the roughly contemporaneous Fifth Symphony. Neither Richard Bonynge, on London, nor Andre' Previn, on Angel, realized the full character of this splendid work, and the far more persuasive recording by Ernest Ansermet now shows its age sonically -- though it is a very good buy in London's Stereo Treasury Series (STS-15496/98).
Rozhdestvensky has already given us outstanding accounts of both "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake" recorded in Moscow. (The former is available from both the Musical Heritage Society and CBS, the latter from MHS and Melodiya/Angel; the MHS mastering is superior in both cases.) His "Sleeping Beauty" is in the same class, and is far more sumptuously recorded, as well as more smoothly played by the English orchestra. It is also absolutely complete (Ansermet omitted two brief sections). In short, this impeccably pressed set is clearly the recommended version now.
This conductor's Sibelius symphony cycle with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra continues to fill in on Quintessence, and No. 4 (PMC-7199; cassette P4C-7199) is a magnificent realization of that unique masterwork. It is also more successful sonically than the recent issues of Nos. 3 and 5 (PMC-7188). The Symphony alone, though, now seems rather shortweight for a whole disc; for just a dollar more, the finest of Herbert von Karajan's three recordings of the Fourth comes with "The Swan of Tuonela" (DG Resonance 2535/359; cassette 3334.359), and, of course, for still more there is Vladimir Ashkenazy's stunning digital recording of the Fourth plus both "Luonnotar" (with Elisabeth Soederstroem) and "Finlandia" (London LDR-71019). Committed Sibelians, however, will surely want more than a single version of the great Finn's greatest symphony, and may well find Rozhdestvensky's too striking to pass up.
Not to forget "The Nutcracker" entirely, there are two new digital recordings of the "Nutcracker Suite," one by Leonard Slatkin, on his first record with the Minnesota Orchestra (Pro Arte PAD-121), the other by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Telarc DG-10068).
Tchaikovsky did not prepare a concert suite from either of his other ballets himself, and happened to produce this one almost by accident. In November 1891, in Moscow, he conducted the premiere of his symphonic ballad "The Voyevoda," in which he used the celesta for the first time. He had planned to repeat the performance in St. Petersburg four months later, but was so displeased with "The Voyevoda" that he ordered the score destroyed and quickly put together a suite from his not-yet-completed "Nutcracker" score so that he could give his Petersburg audience its first hearing of the newly invented celesta in the Sugar Plum Fairy's music. The once enormous popularity of this suite has slipped a bit in the face of more generous helpings from the score in both live and recorded performances, but it is still an enchanting sequence.
Slatkin does a good deal more with it, I feel, than Maazel: One smiles with pleasure at the beautifully detailed violas in the Overture, the affectionate characterization of the various short pieces, and the exuberant pulse of the Waltz of the Flowers. His overside "Swan Lake" sequence, though, while a more generous selection than most, is much less winningly played, with some untidy solo passages, while Maazel backs his less fetching "Nutcracker Suite" with a first-rate account of "Romeo and Juliet." Each of these discs appeals strongly on one side only: How nice it would be if those two fine sides could be recoupled.