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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Suite from the The Nutcracker, Op.71a: Miniature Overture; March; Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy; Trepak; Arab Dance; Chinese Dance; Dance of the Reeds; Flower Waltz
Capriccio Italien, Op.45
Eugene Onegin, Op.24: Waltz and Polonaise
Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Recorded Moscow, 1992
WARNER APEX 2564 608822-2 [50:12]

I will be honest. I approached this review as a chore – another pop classics disc of well worn Tchaikovsky numbers. But I was deservedly given a pleasurable jolt as the old favourites are seized, polished and returned anew. Quite a feat this, bearing in mind that these Russian theatre players must have played the pieces hundreds of times and could probably do the music in their sleep. Likewise, the admirably versatile and dependable conductor, Alexander Lazarev, uses these works as party pieces when he conducts orchestras outside Russia. He has just done a Capriccio Italien in London with the Philharmonia. There is not a hint of jadedness in the playing though and in the combination of Lazarev with his Bolshoi players we have a really formidable team as is shown straight away in the opening overture of the Nutcracker. The articulation of the strings delivers a very special bounce to the music, players and conductor absolutely at one. Yet at the same time there is a dance-like steadiness to the music that emphasises the fact this is, first and foremost, ballet music.

Some people may regard this steadiness as being just slow, as is noticeable in the Sugar Plum Fairy, but to me it is how this dance music should go. It also helps the ear to focus on the astonishing playing. What I found a great joy was confirmation that in these times of globalisation, when the special sound characteristics of different orchestras across the world are slowly getting ironed out, there still lives that special Russian sound. I’ve already mentioned the immaculate, springy articulation of the strings but there is also the directness of the wind sound and I delighted in the delicious throatiness of the bassoon accompaniment in the Chinese Dance. The most obvious trait though is the brass sound, notably the dazzling vibrancy of the trumpets. It never fails to excite. For example, the entry of the trumpet towards the end of the Flower Waltz makes the piece sound as if that is what it was waltzing up to all along. The effect is also partly to do with Lazarev’s sure grasp of the architecture of each number, however miniature. This characteristic comes into its own in the only complete piece on the disc, Capriccio Italien. Lazarev starts it dangerously slow but over a quarter of an hour steadily builds to a thrilling Russian climax, however Italian the piece is supposed to be.

It is interesting to compare the playing to that of a great Western orchestra – the Berlin Philharmonic. I listened to a recording of Rostropovich conducting the Germans in the Nutcracker. The tempi are quicker, the playing superb in a more blended Berlin way but there is much less edge. Rostropovich may be Russian but he cannot get a German orchestra to sound Russian. The trumpets sound like damp squibs compared with the Bolshoiers.

As in football, if you ally star players on form playing at home with firm but inspired management then you are likely to win the game, and this disc is a winner.

Talking of playing at home, the recording was made in the upholstered surroundings of the Bolshoi Theatre which may account for a lack of spacious ambience but that is offset by an up-front clarity of sound. A real criticism is the measly length of the disc: 50 minutes of music. There is room here for another piece of Capriccio proportions.

Finally, a few years ago, after listening to a Tchaikovsky recording made by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky in the orchestra’s prime, I asked a professional trumpet player how the uniquely Russian trumpet sound was achieved. I expected a technical reply involving some mystique around mouthpiece profiles and embouchure practice. He said, "They blow like buggery".

John Leeman


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