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Cracking the Nut,
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This review is from: Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Experience Edition with Hardcover Book) (Audio CD)
In many ways recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballet scores feel wholly bizarre to those who know the ballets in performance. Played at markedly faster tempi, what is pulled around in order to deliver a ream of pirouettes can now be sculpted and performed in its own right. The works deserve no less; by far Tchaikovsky's most original scores, he made a brilliant case for a neglected genre (think only of Minkus's dreary log jam of waltzes for La bayadère) with the dark-hued Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty's symphonism and The Nutcracker's percussive thrill. Without his and Petipa's dancing equivalent of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, there could have been no Ballets Russes, no Prokofiev and no Balanchine.
Simon Rattle has been a Tchaikovsky skeptic to date and the composer's work has been conspicuously absent from his Birmingham or Berlin programming. Reminded that Petrushka had to come from somewhere, Rattle rethought his avoidance of the composer's music and The Nutcracker was the backbone of the Berliner Philharmoniker's 2009 New Year's Eve concerts. The results have been released by EMI in time for Christmas and it is a serious contender for benchmark status, threatening to knock Gergiev's Mariinsky edition off its perch.
Like Daphnis et ChloŽ, there's something of the mechanical about the piece, echoing the wooden joints of its eponymous hero. Yet the key to the work is to move from the picture-perfect poise of the 'Miniature Overture' and deliver the emotional spirit of the end of the first Act. Dainty at first, the Philharmoniker then relishes the score, with thick strident dances at the Stahlbaums' party and luscious rocking strings as the children are taken up to bed. It makes for a sumptuous reading, with a brilliant metallic overcoat. But once Rattle takes hold of the surging 'Clara and the Nutcracker' or the unbearable sincerity of 'In the Pine Forest' that follows, he delivers the music with Mahlerian intensity. Motivic detail is backlit, while the scheme of Tchaikovsky and Petipa's intricate design grows, leading to truly epic climaxes.
When the action moves to the Kingdom of Sweets on the second disc (rather than squeezing it on to one CD, as with Gergiev and Philips), the orchestra is in its element. The balance of sweet and sour in the textures comes through, with languorous cor anglais and lower strings pitted against the lustrous sheen of piccolo, harp and celesta. And rather than delicate fripperies, the Divertissement of chocolate, coffee, tea and the like is played with full-blooded attack, with a dangerously erotic subtext in the 'Arabian Dance'. The 'Shrovetide Fair' ferocity of 'Mother Gigogne', my absolute highlight in the score, is indicative of Rattle's rich approach.
Like in the first act, however, this is only a prelude to the emotional force of the close. After the 'Waltz of the Flowers', in which a tragic tinge bleeds through, or the pellucid melancholy of the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' and the flowing 'Coda', the 'Final Waltz and Apotheosis' is performed with unbridled zeal. Clara's childhood disappears and the Nutcracker is restored as Hans Peter, the magician's nephew. Like all good comics, however, Tchaikovsky depressively slumps home on his own. Premiered in December 1892, the first performance of the 'Pathétique' and his death were only 11 months away. In their virtuosic rendition of The Nutcracker, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Rattle indicate that happiness and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. An absolute must for Christmas.