Valery Gergiev, Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. Decca 475 7669. 2-disc set.
With Gergiev you get exactly what you expect to get: an exciting, exhilarating, fast-paced adrenaline rush. If that's the kind of performance you want in your Tchaikovsky (and, after all, it is Tchaikovsky), that's what you'll find here.
The thing about Tchaikovsky's ballets, though, is that they don't always respond well to the kind of big, fast, energetic treatments that the later symphonies do. And that seems to be Gergiev's signature. Coincidentally, the same day I decided to listen to this new Gergiev interpretation of Swan Lake on Decca, I received in the mail a highlights disc of the work I had ordered from Amazon. It was something I had never found on CD before but had owned long ago on LP; namely, the 1961 Anatole Fistoulari recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, also on Decca. So, after listening to the first of the two Gergiev discs, I put the Fistoulari on and gave it a go. I have to admit, I was in an altogether different world. Where Gergiev was all thunder and lightning, Fistoulari was Old World--elegant, refined, relaxed, and sweeping. Maybe I'm just an old fogey, but I much preferred Fistoulari.
Now, here's the other thing: As I listened to the Gergiev set, a 2007 studio recording, I enjoyed the strong dynamics and the impressive impact. Because over forty-five years separated the two records, I expected the older Fistoulari disc to sound considerably less impressive. Surprise. While the older recording was almost as dynamic, it added a smoother yet just as detailed midrange, a better bloom, and a more extended high end. Indeed, when I went back to the Gergiev, the newer recording actually sounded slightly duller and more muffled to me, especially in the upper mids.
I'm not sure what to make of this. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the new Gergiev set, if you don't mind leaving the performance somewhat exhausted. But the old Fistoulari fully lived up to my memory of it and will undoubtedly provide me the longer-lasting listening pleasure. In any case, if it's a complete Swan Lake you're looking for, you can't go far wrong with Gergiev. However, I would also suggest Andre Previn's 1976 EMI set as perhaps the best compromise possible in the complete ballet; he's both lively and graceful, and the sound is still first rate--the best of all possible worlds.