Monday, April 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 992: Tchaikovsky

Monday has arrived and the Odyssey isn’t going to write itself, so let’s get to it.

Disc 992 is…Tchaikovsky Box Set Disc 5 (of 5)
Artist: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Year of Release: 1875 through 1892

What’s up with the Cover? Not much. Pytor’s portrait oversees the stately business of the album’s contents. He doesn’t smile but that doesn’t mean he isn’t happy; no one smiled for photos back then.

How I Came To Know It: Back in university I decided to get into classical music and quickly gravitated to Tchaikovsky. I bought this box set because it was reasonably priced and the folks in the A&B Sound’s classical department said it was a good recording.

Yes, there was a time when music stores were so plentiful there were entire sections dedicated to different types of music, and folks working in them that knew their stuff.

How It Stacks Up:  This is not an album so much as a “best of” compilation of three operas. Consequently, it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: I shouldn’t rate this at all since it is only sampling from three operas, but I’ll give it 4 stars overall since I created the precedent on previous discs from the same box set.

At last we reach the end of a journey begun back at Disc 9 when I reviewed the first of this five disc box set of the incomparable Tchaikovsky. I can safely say that over 900 reviews later I still know next to nothing about classical music but I know what I like and I like this guy plenty.

What I don’t like is that this album is only “excerpts” from the three ballets in question. Sure the excerpts are fairly extensive (maybe 25 minutes of each one) but I feel like I am missing out. So following are my thoughts on the parts of these operas that EMI has deemed to consider important from these famous works of art.

Swan Lake, Op. 20 (composed 1875-76)

I listened to this opera while walking home from downtown on Saturday afternoon and at the risk of overselling it, it felt like the music carried me all the way to my door step. “Swan Lake” is majestic, playful and pastoral and even a little creepy in places – but only just the right places.

There are parts of this tune that are instantly recognizable (doubt having been used for movies and commercials for decades) but none of it ever felt tired or overdone.

There were places that I thought I was in some enchanted forest, and in others it felt like I was in some stately throne room, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows onto a massive marble floor. Listening to this music everything just felt bigger and more important.

It made me want to run out and buy the full opera, but I’m a little afraid it will wreck my experience. I’ve never been to the ballet (I’ve been to two operas and I’m not a big fan) but if anything was going to get me to the ballet, “Swan Lake” is it. 5 stars.

The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (composed 1889)

My reaction to “Sleeping Beauty” wasn’t quite so amazing. Given that the Tchaikovsky opera was made in the nineteenth century and based off the Brothers Grimm version, I was excited to have some of the creepy dark fairy tale magic of the original tale.

Instead the opera felt whimsical and lighthearted. Frankly, it reminded me more of the 1959 Disney version. “Sleeping Beauty” is probably the best of those early Disney animations but it is still a bit schlocky for my tastes.

Tchaikovsky’s brilliance as a composer comes across well, but I didn’t feel engaged emotionally like I was with “Swan Lake”. Maybe it was the selective editing process by the Soulless Record Execs at EMI, but this one just didn’t grab me. 3 stars.

The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (composed 1892)

If “Swan Lake” was a revelation and “Sleeping Beauty” was a disappointment, “The Nutcracker” was somewhere in between.

It isn’t like there isn’t anything to get a hold of here – this thing is the top 40 hit machine of the 1890s, with earworms a-plenty. Maybe that’s the problem, though. “The Nutcracker” is like that song that was too big of a hit. You’ve heard it a thousand times and you’re just a little sick of it now. Like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or anything by Duran Duran. Yes, screw you, Duran Duran.

What “The Nutcracker” needs is to be shelved for a decade or two, but instead it gets hauled out every Christmas for another round. Brilliant composition? No doubt, but there is so much other stuff by Tchaikovsky I would rather play. Some of it even features cannons; something I wish I had handy whenever I hear the dance of the sugar plum fairy.  A begrudging 3 stars.

Overall I still love Tchaikovsky and while I don’t put him on that often, that is more a function of my belief that classical music is best enjoyed in its entirety, while sitting quietly in a dark room. It is complex stuff and it is worth your full attention.

On those rare occasions when I do choose to have a listen, it is usually something from Discs 1-4 of this set, despite the brilliance that is “Swan Lake”.

Best tracks: Swan Lake 

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