Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (SACD review)

Vladimir Jurowski, Sveshnikov Boys Choir of the Moscow Choral School and the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov.” Pentatone PTC 5186 761.

By John J. Puccio

Let me just guess here, but even though Tchaikovsky is popular for his symphonies, his violin and piano concertos, and his 1812 and Romeo and Juliet overtures, he’s also done pretty well by his three big ballets, especially The Nutcracker (complete or in suites), which we have here in its complete form. Of course, The Nutcracker gets more love during the Christmas season, but, really, it’s welcome music anytime.

So, what could be better than hearing the music of a Russian composer played by a Russian-born conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, and a Russian orchestra, the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov,” also known as the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation or the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, and formerly known as the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra officially acquired the “Evgeny Svetlanov” designation in 2005 for the name of its longest-tenured conductor, Evgeny Svetlanov.

Anyway, back to the question: What could be better? Well, in my experience more than a few other conductors and orchestras have done better. Let me explain. Probably more than any of Tchaikovsky’s other orchestral works, The Nutcracker is highly episodic, almost a series of brief, highly colorful tone poems. Accordingly, any interpretation of the music should be colorful, dramatic, energetic, poignant, as the case may be. Maestro Jurowski, for my money, is not quite in the same league when it comes to color and nuance as several other conductors I favor; namely, Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips/Decca); Antal Dorati and the London Symphony (Mercury); Andre Previn and the London Symphony (EMI/Warner Classic); Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic (Decca); Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca); Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI/Warner Classic); Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra; and several others.

Why doesn’t this recording quite measure up to some of my favorites? Let’s look first at the background of the story. As you probably know, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) adapted his two-act ballet from E.T.A. Hoffman's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," Tchaikovsky premiering the ballet in 1892. But 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-beloved, work. Certainly, it's got a little something in it to delight everyone. Yet it’s that “delight” that Jurowski seems often to miss.

The Russian orchestra plays splendidly. In fact, they are so precisely disciplined, they have practically no character of their own. So in music that requires a wide range of characterful scenes, the almost antiseptic orchestral temperament doesn’t help matters. What this means is that while Jurowski does nothing extraordinarily wrong, neither he nor his orchestra does anything extraordinarily imaginative, either. This leaves us with a very prim and proper presentation that neither offends nor impresses. We can and should admire the orchestra’s immaculate musical execution while not exactly enjoying what they’re presenting.

I’m afraid not even the famous battle scene with the mice comes off as anything but routine. Of course, Tchaikovsky ensured that even “routine” could be plenty exciting, so maybe that is enough; certainly, “The Waltz of the Snowflakes” does seem light and dainty enough. Still, the enchanting dance sequences--Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and Reed Pipes--fail to kindle the same delight as other conductors have produced.

Which leaves us with the two big closing numbers: “The Waltz of the Flowers” and the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.” Yet they, too, seemed rather routine to me. They’re still beautiful, mind you. Just...ordinary. They lack the sumptuousness I expected to hear, the brilliance, the glitter. In the last analysis, there is little or no color to them.

In short, Jurowski’s Nutcracker comes off as a good run-through of the score, almost a rehearsal production. There is little one can point to that is seriously amiss with it; it just lacks a certain sparkle, a certain dash, a certain charm. It’s kind of ho-hum, if you know what I mean, at least in comparison with the conductors I mentioned earlier.

Producers Renaud Laranger and Erdo Goot and engineer Lauran Jurrius recorded the music live at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory Main Hall, Russia in January 2019. They recorded it for SACD two-channel and multichannel playback via an SACD player and for CD two-channel playback via a regular CD player. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD using a Sony SACD player.

The first thing I noticed about the sound was the very low output level. Usually, engineers do this to accommodate a wide dynamic range. But in this case, the dynamics, while wide in both the CD and SACD mode, are not wide enough to warrant such a very low volume. So you might want to turn things up a bit at the beginning. Next, you may wonder at the playing time. Pentatone managed to get the entire ballet onto a single disc, with a playing time of a little over 86 minutes that well exceeds what is supposed to be the 75-minute limit of a standard CD. I tried the disc on several different players, two of them playing the regular CD layer and the Sony SACD unit playing the SACD layer. They all managed to play the 86-minute disc successfully, but I still wouldn’t discount the possibility that some players might not be up to the job.

For a live recording, and beyond the fact that you have to turn up the volume a little more than usual, it sounds good in SACD stereo (and in regular CD from what little I heard). The highs are noteworthy--clear, natural, and extended. As to the rest, there is isn’t a lot of depth or air to the orchestral sound. Nor does the dynamic range seem particularly expansive, but it works and sounds fine. I doubt that anyone will find the sound lacking in anything except volume.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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