Like The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty is a bold and shimmering invitation to classical music. The 1984 recording made by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti in Memorial Hall is among the most hospitable, velvety-red-carpet performances the piece has ever had. Coupled with music from Swan Lake, it might be Muti's enduring gift to children during his Philadelphia years.
But this Sleeping Beauty/Swan Lake is also a fascinating time-capsule for orchestra aficionados. In 1984 the Philadelphia Orchestra was still largely Eugene Ormandy's orchestra. Ormandy stepped down in 1980, but in 1984 it was still stocked with his appointments. What's striking about the sound of the orchestra in those days is its incredibly homogeneous approach to sound. The strings were silken yes; but winds, brass and percussion also hewed to a particularly mellow and blended sound. At this brief juncture in the orchestra's history it had the best of both worlds: Ormandy's keen curatorial ear in choosing like-minded players, and Muti's baton technique of nearly unmatched exactitude. Players were apparently eager to blend the two.
For this project, the orchestra preferred the acoustic of a basketball court in Memorial Hall to the sound of its downtown home, the Academy of Music, which was considered not resonant enough for recordings. The results are magnificent, even by more sophisticated audio standards 25 years later. Though the music was written for dance, and Muti's tempos might be undanceable, he finds new dramatic purpose for this music. The opening explosion of the Sleeping Beauty suite, "Introduction: The Lilac Fairy," is pure Muti — razor-sharp, almost bristling for a fight.
Then the anger gives way to harp arpeggios and one of the warmest, most lyrical woodwind sections ever assembled. Muti's pacing of a climax was something at which one could only marvel. He had a way of holding off a climax just a split second longer than expected, just long enough to create a little pain so that the ensuing release brought with it an added dimension of pleasure. It wasn't only his hair that ardent fans found so alluring.
In 1984, Muti was on top of the world and his recordings were packed with confidence. Whether it was through authority, charm or technical command, he drew from musicians playing of astonishing character and polish. Concertmaster Norman Carol's silvery, muted Swan Lake solo is so full of sly expressive strokes it practically tells a story. Richard Woodhams' oboe solo in the opening of Swan Lake is a study in controlled peril. Solo cello, trumpet, English horn – they were, each one, remarkably charismatic yet sensitive to an overall ensemble philosophy.
That was the Philadelphia personality. It exists today, but only to some extent and only on some nights. Whether a future musical chief — Charles Dutoit? — decides to save what's left of it and tries to inculcate it in the ears of newly arrived players remains to be seen. Whether it's even possible, given some of the playing styles of recent appointments, particularly in the brass, is hard to say.
Nostalgia? No. Rather, an urgent wish for capturing before it's too late what's unique about our orchestra – the thing that made Philadelphia's an instantly recognizable sound that travelled the world.
Years later, Wolfgang Sawallisch recorded Swan Lake in Memorial Hall. The results, released in 1994, came with a storybook and were packaged for the family market. It's a perfectly solid performance, and you get the entire ballet rather than just excerpts. But this Muti recording is something altogether different: a singular portrait of an emerging maestro taking command of an orchestra that has one foot happily in the past.