By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: