22 December 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Tchaikovsky: The ballet suites

Karajan was unquestionably a great Tchaikovsky conductor. […] The triptych of ballet suites can be recommended almost without reservation.”
Ivan March in Gramophone

There are a lot of pieces that Karajan only recorded once and never performed live (symphonies by Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Schubert for example). But it was unusual for him to record a group of works four(!) times and never play them in concert although they are very popular. This is the case with Tchaikovsky’s three ballet suites. Their appeal to Karajan is obvious. It’s the mixture of inimitable tunes, elegant dance rhythms and colourful orchestration and it’s something these ballet stories call for and Karajan had a special ability to evoke – the symbiosis of beauty and threat.

He never conducted the great ballets “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker” in their entirety but concentrated on the suites, which last about 20 – 25 minutes each, and recorded them with every one of “his” orchestras, the Philharmonia, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, between 1952 and 1982.

Karajan’s 1952 mono recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballet suites with the Philharmonia were a money-spinner – even in the United States, where he hadn’t appeared in concert before 1955.

“The performances combine playing of rare finish and beauty with an edge-of-the-seat spontaneity that even now takes the breath away. By December 1957, the mono LP had sold nearly 100,000 copies in Europe and the United States. By 1959, when EMI decided to invest in a stereo remake, the figure had risen to 121,544 copies, roughly twelve per cent of Karajan’s million-plus LP sales during his Philharmonia years.”
Richard Osborne

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducts Tchaikovsky’s ballet suites. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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