Site review by ramesh January 23, 2006
|'The Nutcracker' is the last of Tchaikovsky's three great ballets, and was premiered in 1892, the year before his enigmatic death. It is fascinating how Tchaikovsky's works, especially his great ballets, are now considered seminal Western romantic compositions, yet at the time were derided as alien, quasi-Eastern music by the German musical establishment. In the sumptuous liner notes to this 2 SACD set, it is fascinating to read of a cultural reversal when Tchaikovsky's contemporaries such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin were playing up the 'oriental' elements in their music. As the notes state, "The most original instrument in the whole score is the celesta. Tchaikovsky heard it in Paris while he was en route to the Carnegie Hall opening in New York. He immediately loved its 'glistening tones' and instructed that it be secured for him-- secretly. He did not want Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov to know of its existence, for he wanted to use it as a surprise in 'the Nutcracker'. It would be the Sugar Plum Fairy's very own musical signature."
This Mercury set was recorded in 1962 at the Watford Town Hall on 35mm magnetic film. The coupling, Tchaikovsky's 'Serenade for Strings', was recorded by the Philharmonia Hungarica ( an emigre orchestra comprising many refugees following the Hungarian uprising of 1956 ) in Vienna in 1956, on ordinary tape.
Dorati himself recorded the complete Nutcracker no less than three times. The first was the world premiere on record, in mono with the Minneapolis orchestra in 1953 for Mercury; and finally in 1975, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a beautifully burnished performance gloriously recorded by the Philips engineers in the Concertgebouw Hall. ( This recording sounds very well in its latest CD incarnation in the Philips 50th anniversary series.) This was no accident, for Dorati had been appointed director of the Russian ballet of Monte Carlo in 1933, and in 1941 of the American Ballet Theater.
Whether this implies his recordings are 'balletic' is another matter. Hearing this work in a ballet performance is rather different, for the conductors here are understandably keener to emphasise the first beat in the bar for the benefit of the dancers. Moreover, the divertissement of character dances in Act 2, from which the bulk of the 'Nutcracker Suite' is traditionally sourced, comprise a hotch-potch of tempi, depending on the proclivities of the solo dancers.
In a nutshell, this Mercury performance is the fleetest and most 'symphonic' Nutcracker rendition I've heard. There are relatively few repeats in the dances, so comparison timings are rather more reliable than is often the case. Dorati here clocks in at about 79 minutes, whereas most complete performances, such as his Concertgebouw one, are in the mid-80s. The second fastest is Gergiev's 1998 recording on Philips 462114 with the Maryinsky Orchestra, which zipped through in 81 minutes. Incidentally, this Philips recording is appealing as sound, recorded on customised valve equipment. It is one of the most analogue sounding digital recordings from the Universal stable, although the bloom on the strings was rather constricted from the vagaries of the recording venue. However, the timbral distinctiveness which marked, say, Mravinsky's pre-1978 Leningrad PO ( many of this orchestra's best musicians emigrated to Israel and the USA when the opportunity arose ) has dissipated in favour of the all-round homogenised competence which marks the top tier orchestras in the age of globalisation.
Comparison of the two later Dorati performances indicate his tempi in this Mercury LSO recording are swifter for every individual section than with the Concertgebouw. The initial pulse is often not that much quicker, but he accelerates through the climaxes. This is elastic and graduated, without any lurching. Mravinsky, in passionate performances of his unique selection of the suite ( available from various sources but sounding relatively well in the 20 bit remastering on BMG/Melodiya ) never pushes his tempi. With his early 1980s Leningrad orchestra, this creates emotional catharses in the climactic moments in the score, which have never been equalled by any other conductor. The cumulative effect of Mravinsky's choice of extracts and artistic vision, is to refashion an undemanding 'Nutcracker Suite' from Arthur Fiedleresque ballet bon-bons, to a ravishing programme symphony, in the vein of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique'.
I had never heard this Dorati/LSO performance before buying the SACDs. It doesn't sound like his later Concertgebouw one. In fact, listening without knowledge of the conductor, I would've probably nominated Eliot Gardiner, with the Englishman's penchant for relatively quick speeds with incisive rhythms and relatively lean textures, and streamlined phrasing. However, Dorati's phrasing is really quite affectionate within the bounds of the pace he sets the orchestra. Hence, the 'Waltz of the Flowers' has a genuine lilt, which gains rare exultation due to the clip at which it is taken. The dancers would have to be very fresh and game to cope, however.
The Mercury recording in the main complements the interpretation, closely observed in the house manner. The magnetic film brings an extraordinarily low tape hiss, which if anything is less than the Philips engineers achieved in 1975. This, combined with the acute preservation of the leading edge of the notes, lends a crispness to the recording. Nevertheless, the recording shows its age in a lack of fullness to the notes, although the SACD preserves the harmonic richness. Hence, this recording in many ways is the opposite of the Stokowski recordings from 1960-61 released as the Living Stereo SACD, 'Rhapsodies' BMG 82876-67903. Here the tape hiss is greater, but the voluptuous Stokowski sound is present in spades. Dorati's orchestral balances together with the relatively wide early stereo separation allow more of Tchaikovsky's orchestration to breathe, especially the cross rhythms which are one of the characteristics which make his ballets so much more varied and vivacious despite their length, compared to lesser composers. In this respect Dorati's interpretation is superior to all others I have heard. The Mercury closeness is an impediment in two of the great set pieces. The women's voices in the 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' sound as though they emanate from the prompt box rather than offstage. Finally, it is legitimate to grumble when the ethereal celesta in the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' sounds as forward as the piano about to do battle in Beethoven's 'Emperor Concerto'.
One caveat has to do with interpretative traditions. The sublime 'Pas de Deux' is passionate, within the bounds of the relatively undernourished strings. However, if one experiences this in Gergiev's rendition, and above all, Mravinsky's, one enters an entirely more exalted realm. Certainly, Dorati's performance is entirely in keeping with 'Western' performances of this number, and arguably, it is more appropriate in terms of continuity as a ballet, and in relation to the more modest dances which flank the 'Pas de Deux'. The manner in which Gergiev and Mravinsky perform this, vaults it from a mere ballet extract into nothing less than the apotheosis of Russian romantic music. Having heard Temirkanov with a London orchestra, and Rozhdestvensky with both a London and Moscow orchestra perform the 'Pas de Deux' with much of the same overwhelming fervour, I wonder whether this is a specific Slavic performance tradition. The reason this is worth mentioning is because PentaTone are shortly due to record the complete ballet with a Russian orchestra and conductor. There is no need to hesitate to get this 2 SACD set for 'the Nutcracker'. The performance of the 'Serenade' is not an asset. However, if one only desires a single complete Nutcracker on SACD, it may be better to wait to see if the upcoming PentaTone 'Nutcracker' contains a 'Pas de Deux' inimitably in the Russian vein.
Final word must rest with the production of the booklet, which contains no less than sixteen pages of text about the music and recording. There is a detailed plot cued to the music, based on a Balanchine production. This is written in quite a fetching style of middle class English prevalent in the 1940's to 1950's, devoid of the banalities and false posturing which apparently is de rigueur to engage with attention deficit youth culture. It would make an stimulating present for children to nurture their imaginations in an audiovisually saturated culture, and also to any person learning English, for the prose is colourful whilst remaining grammatically correct. Enjoy.
Ratings are only for the 'Nutcracker'. ( A comparative review of the Serenade together with the Pentatone recording of this will be done later.)