Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
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Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker have recorded the most performed ballet of all time, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. The release marks the conductor's first Tchaikovsky recording. This recording also features an appearance by the boy band Libera.
The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1891. It has since become a Christmas tradition in many countries around the world.
Simon Rattle is an award-winning conductor, and Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker orchestra.
Simon Rattle has produced a conception-buster of a disc here. As a general rule, The Nutcracker feels like the comfort blanket of the ballet repertoire: a much-loved, known quantity of solid, 19th century sumptous prettiness. However, Rattle has taken his expertise in early 20th century music and brilliantly applied it backwards to Tchaikovsky. The result is enlightening. You clearly hear how Act I inspired Stravinsky when writing Petrushka, and there's also more than a whisper of Ravel in the overall tone of bright, nostalgic modernity.
The Nutcracker's action is set on Christmas Eve, when Clara is given a nutcracker toy by her mysterious godfather. At midnight the toy comes alive. After Clara helps him to conquor the evil Mouse King in battle, he turns into a prince and leads her to the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy treats them to a series of fantastic dances. These dances make up one of the few balletic divertissements (diversions from the main plot) that is indisputably integral to the evenings enjoyment, rather than the cue for non-hardcore ballet fans to start clock-watching. The reason is that they include many of the most memorable and popular pieces in the whole classical canon, such as Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It's so infectiously, festively fun that even the Berlin Philharmoniker, famed more for their rich, smooth perfection than for letting their hair down, has fallen into party mode, albeit of the cocktail rather than the student shin-dig variety. The Battle crackles brightly with military tension, half-aware that the most deadly weapon will turn out to be a thrown slipper. Later, in the smouldering coffee dance, the clarinet langourously rises and snakes over the orchestra like an exotic swirl of steam rising up from the dark spiciness of the cup beneath.
The recording is released in three editions. Whilst the single-CD edition contains musical highlights, this performance is worth owning in full. Of the two double-CD, complete-work options, there is a Standard Edition or an Experience Edition, the latter of which includes a larger hardback book, greater online content, and a free 24-hour pass to the Berlin Philharmoniker's online concert hall.
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The added space, however, doesn't make for any unwanted sluggishness. Right from Clara's poignant first meeting with the Nutcracker to the vodka-shot clout of the Russian Dance, there's real tang to these melodious treats. And you hear danger too, with brusque woodwind accents during the Mouse King battle and snarling trombones under the snowflakes. Throughout, Rattle maintains that balance between sweet and sour. And the whole performance feels distinctly more fleet of foot than Andre Previn's rather bulky rendition with the LSO (recently re-released on EMI).
Following that broad lead, Pletnev's Russian National Orchestra version, just out on Ondine, overplays the ballet's symphonic credentials. While it worked for the orchestra's benchmark Sleeping Beauty on DG, in The Nutcracker a conductor has to ensure that emotion doesn't overwhelm the thrill. Too often Pletnev's overplays his hand with pizzicato sounding like Bartók. Someone who better knows the work's temperament is Mark Ermler with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (now available at bargain price on Sony). Unsurprisingly, the seasoned ROH dance-accompanists know how to make this music swing.
But none of these contenders matches the Berlin recording's all-round passion and pizazz. Most notably, Rattle's really thought about the ballet's emotional context. For him and his players, it's not just an orchestral showcase. Underlining the melancholy of Tchaikovsky's score, this Nutcracker confronts the unhappy and lost soul who wrote it. The power and space given to the melodies allows the piece to wear an ambiguous heart on its sleeve. This is proper grown-up stuff, addressing the loss of innocence as well as the garish tinsel of Christmas. By knocking off the dust of routine, Tchaikovsky's seasonal jewel sparkles once more. And Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic's emotional clarity reminds us why we all fell for The Nutcracker in the first place.
Recorded sound is very lively and sparkling, bass well rounded, all instruments are clearly audible, without excessive reverb. I will play this very often, it is a perfect medicine against an upcoming winter depression. Well done Sir Simon!
Note (10-12-2010): on fellow reviewer Marc Haegeman's suggestion I bought Semyon Bychkov's 1986 BPO recording on Philips; while the conducting/playing is perhaps more characterful and manages to tell the story more convincingly by showing more affinity with a ballet performance, Rattle's soloist are more prominent and display more beauty and roundness of tone. Also, Rattle's performance manages to capture an ethereal quality (perhaps best reflected in the boys choir's singing) which eludes Bychkov and the overall sound is fuller and richer. I for one cannot find fault with Rattle's BPO indulging in the sheer beauty of the music just for beauty's sake, and while I'm pleased to have Bychkov's as a performance, it's Rattle's set I will be returning to more often for sheer listening pleasure.