Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, complete (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 46385 2 2 (2- disc set).

It's occurred to me over the last few years that Simon Rattle had more snap and pizzazz back when he was leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra than he has shown conducting the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002. I'm not sure why, but I have a couple of theories: (1) Rattle is older now, more mature, and his performances reflect that aging process. (2) Working with one of the world's most-prestigious orchestras, he feels a need to take everything more seriously. (3) He has done a lot of his recording work in Berlin live, and maybe that has forced him to be more cautious. (4) I just like the more youthfully exuberant spirit of his earlier period because I personally enjoy a more joyous, uninhibited sound. (5) Maybe I'm just wrong, and my minority opinion reflects a callowness on my part. I dunno.

In any case, Rattle seems to have let his hair down a little more than usual here in The Nutcracker, and at the same time let his inner child loose. Or perhaps it's just the nature of the music to sound enchanting under every baton, even Rattle's more conservative one these days.

As you probably know, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) adapted his two-act ballet The Nutcracker from E.T.A. Hoffman's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," premiering the ballet in 1892.  He didn't like it. Indeed, friends said he loathed it, especially compared to his previous ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. It's ironic, then, that in our own time, The Nutcracker has become possibly Tchaikovsky's most-popular, nay most-beloved, work. Certainly, it's got a little something in it to delight everyone.

Rattle takes the "Miniature Overture" very gently, very delicately, promising a sweet, fairy-tale Nutcracker to follow. Then he opens things up considerably in the "March" and the "Children's Galop." Overall, this is a strongly nuanced performance, with Rattle the child, yes, but the thoughtful child.

It's in the big dance and waltz sections, though, that Rattle shows us his best stuff.  He performs them on a grand scale, with a wonderfully forward pulse. The "Grandfather's Dance" is light and sprightly, and "The Waltz of the Snowflakes" that closes Act I is innocent and charming. Rattle presents the various "Divertissement" selections in Act II with plenty of color and character and a good deal of poetic vigor as well. I also enjoyed his handling of the momentous "Waltz of the Flowers," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and "Pas de deux," his injecting them with the utmost grace and suavity. They are not as passionate as some renditions, yet they are wondrously refined.

Other, more-dramatic scenes, like "The Battle" and the "Trepak: Russian Dance," come off with an abundance of appropriate bombast and swagger. Hair down or no, however, Rattle is still going to give us a serious reading of the material. So, if anything, he elevates the music of The Nutcracker from the Christmas candy counter to something approaching high art. And, needless to say, as well, the Berlin Philharmonic play magnificently.

EMI's sound, recorded in 2009 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, is ultrasmooth, well extended, and beautifully balanced top to bottom. It's among the nicest-sounding recordings I've heard from Rattle and the BPO in years. Bass is deep, highs glisten, and the midrange is reasonably clear, with a decent stage depth. While the sound is a trifle soft, yes, and lacking in ultimate detail, sparkle, and transparency, it is nonetheless realistic, providing a middle of the concert-hall feeling. However, because of the wide dynamic range involved, the output is fairly low, so turn it up carefully.

Drawbacks? Well, the only thing EMI offer here is the complete Nutcracker, which lasts a little over eighty-six minutes, spread over two discs. Other sets offer better value with their companion pieces, like Dorati's mid-priced Philips package, which includes a suite of highlights from The Sleeping Beauty on the second disc.  Besides which, there is formidable competition to consider in complete sets not only from Dorati (Philips and Mercury) but from Previn (EMI), Ashkenazy (Decca), and Dutoit (Decca). Still, you'll get a plush, cultured, yet festive reading from Rattle, making it a contender no matter how you look at it.

JJP

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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa