Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, complete (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. Ondine ODE 1180-2D (2-disc set).

Perhaps it's just me, but it seems as though every other disc I review anymore features Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra performing some Russian work or another. He pops up on DG recordings, on Virgin Classics, PentaTone, Philips, Newton Classics, and now on Ondine. The guy's everywhere. Either a lot of people like him, or he works cheap.

As I'm sure you 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" and premiered it in 1892. He didn't like it, though. Indeed, friends said he hated 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 and maybe the most-popular ballet of any kind ever written. Certainly, it's got a little something in it to make everybody happy.

So, is there anything about this new recording from Pletnev that should make us forget some of the best recordings of the past, like those from Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Dorati and the LSO (Mercury), Andre Previn and the LSO (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy and Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Charles Dutoit the Montreal Symphony (Decca), Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (Philips), or Charles Mackerras and the LSO (Telarc)? Well, not really.

Things start out well enough with a vigorous yet unhurried Overture, followed by Pletnev's fairly tranquil handling of the Christmas ornaments scene. However, as he will do throughout the reading, he seems to favor either very quick or very slow tempos, without a lot of gradation in between; it achieves an outward appearance of excitement but ultimately seems a little artificial.

The familiar march that comes next also adheres to this quick-slow pattern, Pletnev beginning it in a relaxed, stately fashion, and then hurrying the middle section so much it appears as though everyone is in a race. After that, he settles into a relatively rigid, static pace.

And so it goes. Certainly, the orchestra play as precisely as ever and observe Pletnev's every direction to the letter, yet they often sound slightly thin, too, lacking a degree of lower-midrange weight. Anyway, I didn't find as much beauty, mystery, drama, passion, or sheer magic in Pletnev's interpretation as I did with any of the conductors cited above. Pletnev seems content to play the notes and mind the score, only launching himself into the music on occasion, and then, as I say, doing so somewhat frenetically.

The first act ends with the "Waltz of the Snowflakes," which Pletnev handles rather perfunctorily, devoid of much of the grace and lilt it demands. Like most of the rest of his rendition, it lacks much energy or imagination. Perhaps it just lacks much love, I don't know.

Tchaikovsky saved his best and most-memorable material for Act Two, which occupies the second disc. Here, the composer tends to forget about the story for a while and just entertain us with a series of delightful melodies. Because of the nature of the music, Pletnev can hardly lose. So things do pick up in the second half, although one might still find greater delight in Dorati or Previn, my favorites. By comparison, Pletnev often seems either to drag or push too hard.

Ondine recorded The Nutcracker at Mosfilm Recording Studios, Moscow, in March of 2011, and the results make for one of the better-sounding recordings of the Russian National Orchestra I've heard. The strings are clear and generally smooth, with only occasional moments of bright edginess. The midrange shows good clarity, maybe aided by the moderately close-up miking. There is not much stage depth involved, though, the orchestra sounding rather flat most of the time. No matter; making up for it are a crisp transient impact, especially noticeable on plucked strings and percussion, and a wide dynamic range with a pleasantly extended treble and bass response.

While I suppose purists will always insist upon having the complete ballet, and I don't blame them, I can't help thinking that The Nutcracker would also work well on disc in a slightly truncated version. The ballet often lasts about 90-100 minutes, yet edited to 75 minutes of the best tunes, it would fit neatly onto a single CD without sacrificing much. Maybe somebody will give it a thought someday. It certainly would have benefited Pletnev.

Finally, the two Ondine discs provide only 93 minutes of music, when there is a total capacity for close to an hour more content. It would have been nice to have gotten a coupling, no matter how brief, from Ondine.


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Meet the Staff

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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa