Michael Tilson Thomas made some excellent records with the Philharmonia
in the ’80s, and although I hadn’t come across this particular performance
before, knowing this conductor’s flair for such music, I expected good
things. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Nutcracker was the final ballet in Tchaikovsky’s
great triptych, and was completed in 1891, a year during which the composer
made a fatiguing concert tour of America and also suffered a nervous
collapse. There is real justification in calling Tchaikovsky the father
of the modern ballet score, and he effectively paved the way for dance-theatre
music to be taken seriously. However, his first ballets were coolly
received, and he was (as ever) wracked with self-doubt about this work,
even after the premiere. This score has, of course, gone on to become
one of his most popular scores.
Like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker
is most often heard in highlight form, but in fact works better when
experienced complete. It’s just the right length, and has so many famous
numbers that it seems ridiculous to condense it to 20 or 30 minutes.
I do possess excerpt discs, but turn most frequently to my benchmark
complete version, Ashkenazy’s Decca recording with the Royal Philharmonic.
It has a spectacular sound, full, rich and wide-ranging, and a very
useful fill-up is included, Glazunov’s masterpiece The Seasons.
However, that set is at full price, so the real competition for this
budget Sony release comes from Previn’s excellent LSO version (now on
Classics for Pleasure, also without a filler), and Dorati’s marvellous
Concertgebouw recording on a Philips Duo, which finds room for a substantial
Sleeping Beauty selection (Fistoulari and the LSO).
The fact that Tilson Thomas can hold his own against
anyone is immediately evident in the Overture, which has a Mendelssohnian
lightness and graceful wit that is captivating. As a Bernstein protégé,
MTT is a theatrical conductor through and through (listen to any of
his Mahler or Copland records), so he is completely at home with the
colour and drama of this great score. His pacing throughout is exemplary,
on the fast side but with ensemble crisp and rhythms tight. All the
famous dances of Act 2 are as infectious as one could wish for; listen
to the delectable trumpet playing in the Spanish Dance, whilst
the Russian Dance has tremendous weight and panache. The principals
of the Philharmonia obviously relish the many solos that litter the
score, and indeed the whole orchestra enjoy themselves enormously. I
like the way Tilson Thomas gives due attention to Tchaikovsky’s exotic
‘special-effects’, including a child’s trumpet in C, children’s drums,
a rattle and mechanisms suggesting cuckoos and quails. He even uses
a ratchet and Irish whistle in the Grandfather’s Dance, while
kazoos, toy snare drums and a children’s cap gun are used in The
Battle. Marvellous fun!
The whole performance has a flair and feeling of ‘rightness’
that are very captivating. The conductor never loses sight of the famous
adage that ‘there is a lot of ballet in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, and
a lot of the symphony in his ballets’. He gives everything its due place,
so one feels an organic growth in the piece, rather than a succession
of set-pieces. Listening to these discs was as satisfying as any of
the competition I had to hand, and in many ways the short playing time
ceases to be an issue in the face of a great performance. Recording
quality is also well up to scratch, with a full-bodied richness that
matches the playing.
There is a brief synopsis (not cued), and a short but
helpful note by Philip Ramey. Great value and highly recommended.