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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (complete ballet) (1892) [78:56];
Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 (1880) [30:05]
London Symphony Orchestra Chorus (Nutcracker)
London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Philharmonia Hungarica Orchestra (Serenade)/Antal Dorati
Recorded in Watford Town Hall, 11 – 13 July 1962 (Nutcracker); Grosser Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, 5 June 1958 (Serenade)
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 475 6623 (SACD) [41:01 + 78:00]

Here is an old friend that I hadn’t heard for a very long time. It has been around from time to time in different disguises, on LPs, then some ten years ago when most of the Mercury catalogue was released on two-channel CDs and now, finally, it comes on SACD in the original three-channel version.

Mercury’s recordings were always famous for the excellence of the sound, even back in the mono period in the 1950s, when they used a single microphone, positioned to give the most truthful recreation of the music, the orchestra and the hall ambience. With the advent of stereo they added another two microphones but stuck to the basic concept with the package of microphones so to speak in the best seat in the hall. There was no real technical wizardry with filtering and equalizing, just a keen ear and a sensible choice of recording venue. Recording sometimes on 35 mm magnetic film (as in the case of The Nutcracker) gave extra dynamics and frequency range. It was a method that has stood the test of time.

Listening now to the three-channel version and remembering the impact the stereo LPs made back in the distant past, the Mercury ‘signature’ is easily recognizable: characterised by immediacy of the sound, fairly close but not spot-lit. Mercury avoided the excesses of the Decca Phase 4 sound with its multi-microphone technique that, as it were, zoomed in on the individual instruments and thus gave a thrilling feeling of presence but at the expense of the integrated sound picture that Mercury achieved. The added centre-channel gives an extra clarity in separating the instruments – solo instruments are pin-pointed and easy to locate – and also, in concerted passages, there’s an extra depth to the orchestra. One can hear fuller, rounder sound on some other recordings, but the somewhat leaner picture that Watford Town Hall produces fits Dorati’s interpretation of the music as the proverbial glove.

Hungarian, born in 1906, he became more or less a ballet specialist from 1933, when he was appointed musical director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. All through his life he had a special liking for ballet, which can be seen also in his extensive discography - few conductors have actually recorded more than Dorati. As late as c. 1980, when the digital recording technique took over, he re-recorded some of his favourite scores, among them a brilliant Petrushka, on a par with his rightly celebrated Mercury version. And this Nutcracker is in the same mould. The buzz-word is precision! With a virtuoso LSO on their toes he chisels every phrase to perfection. One could object that it might be too perfect, too engineer like. Add to this his preference for fastish tempos and there is a risk of mechanical and charmless readings. In the main they are not, however, for Dorati can relax. He can give those gorgeous yearning melodies their full due, and there isn’t a dull moment during the close to eighty minutes the ballet lasts.

The overture sets the tone: this is filigree work, a piece of embroidery, transparent, airy, almost murmuring as if sharing the expectancy with the children in the audience, before the curtain rises. The march (CD1 track 3) is played at jogging tempo and the scene with the children’s presents (track 5), with its jagged, jazzy rhythms, is executed with real swing. In the second act the Spanish dance (CD2 track 3) gets a certain thrill through the exactly located but not over-blown castanets, and the trepak (track 6) is a marvel of precision in spite of the break-neck tempo. All of these numbers, although – or maybe thanks to –faster than we are used to, contribute to the feeling of joy and celebration. I prefer this to the heavier, more ponderous approach of some. On the other hand, the most famous piece, Waltz of the Flowers (CD2 track 9) although light and airy to begin with, in the last resort becomes too energetic, too lacking in charm. There is a relentlessness in Dorati’s conducting that contradicts the "fairy tale" setting of the ballet, especially since the textbook follows the George Balanchine staging for the New York City Ballet, where "flowers, the most beautiful of candy flowers, led by a shimmering dewdrop, waltz for Clara and her Prince". I’m afraid that in Dorati’s waltz the dew has turned into sturdy rain.

But this is very much the exception. On the whole there is such a lot of wonderfully atmospheric music-making. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in the second tableau of act 1, is a real gem with its surging rhythms and the wordless singing of the ladies of the LSO Chorus (CD1 track 10). Competition is keen, but provided one can accept a swifter-than-usual approach to this ever-appealing score, Dorati’s rendering can be safely recommended, now in better sound than ever.

The Serenade for Strings finds the conductor in more relaxed mood, and whether this is due to the warmer ambience of the Vienna Concert Hall or if this venue was chosen because of Dorati’s approach, I don’t know. Anyway, the recording was made in 1958 and Vienna was the home ground for the orchestra, which was formed by Hungarian émigrés having fled to Austria upon the Soviet invasion in 1956. The strings produce a fine, tight sound, not quite as homogeneous as the LSO strings perhaps, but well suited to the mostly elegiac mood of the music. This is Tchaikovsky’s feeling presented heart-on-the-sleeve but tempered by the classicistic use of only a body of strings. There is a nervous eagerness about the Allegro moderato of the first movement; the Waltz – marked Moderato. Tempo di Valse – has that lilt I missed in the Waltz of the Flowers. The Elegy, Larghetto elegiaco, is intimate and sad – but without tears. The finale with its contrapuntal Allegro con spirito has all the precision of the Nutcracker – and the added warmth.

The booklet (24 pages) reproduces the original cover art and includes a long cued synopsis based, as I said, on the Balanchine production, a "History of The Nutcracker", a page about the recording and a long essay about the Serenade for Strings. Exemplary!

Göran Forsling



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