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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa