Tchaikovsky/Ellington: The Nutcracker Suites (CD review)

Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York; various artists. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907493.

Here’s a clever, well-executed album with a clever, well-executed plan. It juxtaposes two versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on the same disc: the composer’s original 1892 version, performed by conductor Steven Richman and his sixty-piece Harmonie Ensemble/New York, and a 1960 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn jazz version performed by a fourteen-piece jazz ensemble. The comparisons and, mainly, contrasts make fascinating listening.

Of course, the Tchaikovsky original is so familiar, the album’s producers probably needn’t have included it at all. Still, it’s nice to have the original on hand to make instant comparisons, as I have done with the brief excerpts below. Besides, the Harmonie Ensemble/New York play the original so felicitously, it’s a pleasure to hear them perform it, no matter how many other recordings of it you may have in your library.

So, first up is the original Nutcracker Suite, which Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) extracted from his complete two-act ballet The Nutcracker. Interestingly, early audiences didn’t much cotton to the ballet, but they did appreciate the twenty-odd minute suite, which in turn led to today’s worldwide popularity of both the complete ballet and the suite. Anyway, the suite contains eight movements:  “Overture,” “March,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Russian Dance,” “Arabian Dance,” “Chinese Dance,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Maestro Steven Richman formed the Grammy-nominated Harmonie Ensemble New York in 1979, and it now comprises over sixty or so members, drawing its players from the best New York orchestras and jazz groups. The Harmonie Ensemble/New York play with refinement, style, and élan. You'd be hard pressed to find a better reading of the Nutcracker Suite than the one you find here. It's not only colorful and exciting, it sounds as precisely articulated as any you'll come across. Along with its exacting execution, you get Harmonia Mundi's usual lifelike sound, making it a double success.

The real attraction of the album, though, is the jazz version of the Nutcracker Suite devised by jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ellington once said "There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind." This is good music.

The jazz ensemble features Mark Gross, alto sax; Scott Robinson, alto sax, clarinet, and bamboo flute; Bill Easley, clarinet and tenor sax; Lew Tabackin, tenor sax; Bobby Lavell, tenor sax; Ron Jannelli, baritone sax and bass clarinet; Lew Soloff, Bob Millikan, Steve Bernstein, and Stanton Davis, trumpets; Art Baron, Wayne Goodman, and Curtis Folkes, trombones; Hassan Shakur, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; and George Cables, piano.

Ironically, Ellington never much cared for the work he did on Nutcracker, never playing it in concert. Since its debut, fortunately, plenty of other people have played and recorded it, none of them any better than what we have here. I suppose it helps that Ellington wrote mainly dance numbers, and Tchaikovsky's piece is a ballet. The melodies flow out of the jazz ensemble with an easy feel for the manner of Tchaikovsky yet in an unmistakable Ellington style. It's the kind of traditional jazz arrangement that at once makes it appealing to jazz fans as well as to classical-music afficionados. In other words, it's accessible to just about everyone.

The Ensemble play it beautifully, too, every member of the group contributing his own lasting impression. I especially enjoyed Bill Easley's clarinet solos, Lew Tabackin's tenor sax, and Victor Lewis's work on drums. But for that matter, the whole ensemble swings. Nice work. A light-cardboard slipcover completes the package.

Audio engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the music at Avatar Studios, New York City and at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, Mary Flagler Cary Hall, New York City in 2010 and 2011. The sound has a nice zippy ring to it, with just the right amount of ambient bloom to make it sound real. An extended frequency response, particularly in the treble, and a clean, clear midrange help, too. While the orchestra doesn't display a lot of depth, it is wide and fairly dynamic, with a pleasant air around the instruments. The jazz ensemble is even more transparent, the smaller group coming through with great impact and sharpness of detail.

To hear a couple of brief comparison excerpts from this album, click here:


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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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa