Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [88:01]
The Sleeping Beauty: Aurora’s Wedding (1888-1889) [47:03]
Chœurs d’enfants de l’école FACE/Iwan Edwards
Orchestre Symphonique du Montréal/Charles Dutoit
rec. 7-8 May and 29 October 1992, St. Eustache, Montreal, Canada
DECCA LONDON 440 477-2 [66:15 + 68:49]

In my recent review of the EMI/Previn Nutcracker I commented in passing that it was a shame Dutoit and the OSM hadn’t recorded the work. A reader then alerted me to the fact that Decca had in fact taped such a performance in 1992. Given the almost legendary status of Dutoit’s Montreal recordings I find it strange that this set is no longer available in the UK; however, diligent buyers should be able to pick up a copy from the US. Their Swan Lake is highly regarded – and still available on these shores – so I was eager to hear how this Nutcracker compares with those from André Previn (LSO, 1972), Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc) and Alexander Vedernikov (PentaTone), all of which strike me as excellent versions of this much-recorded work.

Dutoit made his debut with the OSM in 1977, and together they made some fine discs for Decca in the 1980s, many of which were also commended for their superb sound quality. The relationship came to an acrimonious end in 2002, and since then we’ve heard precious little from either Dutoit or the OSM. A pity really, but at least Decca have kept their legacy alive with a constant stream of reissues.

The nimble overture to The Nutcracker, usually a fair indication of what’s to come, is played here with great precision, but for all its felicities I found it curiously prosaic; there is none of the festive sparkle or sense of delicious anticipation that rivals find here. Indeed, even the first sight of the Christmas tree is less than magical, Dutoit’s tempi slower than usual. Not very encouraging, I have to say, although the sound does have plenty of warmth and weight. The children’s galop is deftly done, but again there’s little to set the pulse racing; as for Drosselmeyer’s rather sinister music, that passes for very little as well.

That said, things improve with the gorgeous harp swirls that accompany the guests’ departure; here at last is some character, but alas it doesn’t last; the descent into night is nowhere near as spine-tingling as it should be – Previn and Mackerras particularly atmospheric at this point – but at least the surging string tune and cymbal clash that follows are as thrilling as ever, the OSM really rising to the occasion. So they can do it, but I just wish they’d do it more consistently; and their copy book is well and truly blotted in the battle scene, the cannon fire sounding more like an imploding shoebox than a piece of ordnance. Vedernikov’s Bolshoi forces are hard to beat here, aided and abetted by an SACD recording of spectacular range and detail.

At least Dutoit and his band make amends with some glorious playing in the pine forest; this is the kind of sound Decca were justly famed for, the music recorded with astonishing amplitude, the cymbals thrillingly caught. And yes, I’m afraid the rather deliberate tempi are back in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, the rhythms much too unyielding for my tastes. As for the children’s chorus, surely they’re too few and too distant, the orchestra very much to the fore. The more I hear of this performance the more I feel it’s a boldly symphonic view, not a very theatrical one. And that, I fear, is the set’s greatest shortcoming.

The OSM are – or were – a first-rate band and no one can deny how beautifully they play in the Kingdom of Sweets, the flute and harp flourishes as polished as one could wish for. As for the all-important character dances, the Spaniards are lacking in verve, the Arabians in mystery; the Chinese fair rather better, but for lightness and point Previn and the LSO are peerless here. The Russian dance allows the orchestra to play loud, which they do, but again there’s not much colour there. The clowns are better characterised, Dutoit finding the rhythmic suppleness I remember from his excellent disc of Suppé overtures. But these are ‘character dances’ after all, and I just don’t think Dutoit differentiate them as well as his rivals do.

The second disc opens with the Waltz of the Flowers, which is magnificently played and recorded; that said, there’s a curious stiffness to the rhythms that persists in the ensuing pas de deux and Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The latter is rendered with exquisite detail and colour – I’ve not heard it done better – but then the final waltz and apotheosis arrives, almost as an afterthought. And that, too, is an aspect of Dutoit’s reading that I find most disconcerting; there is little of the dramatic ebb and flow, an awareness of the music’s nodal points, that one hears with Previn, Mackerras and Vedernikov. So while Dutoit and the OSM are undeniably powerful here, there’s little sign of that final, spontaneous release of emotion, embedded in what must be one of Tchaikovsky’s most glorious climaxes.

Of all the Nutcrackers mentioned here Mackerras is the only one that doesn’t come with a filler; Vedernikov has some snippets from Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin, Previn a performance of Løvenskiold’s La Sylphide, directed by the late Ole Schmidt. Dutoit offers Diaghilev’s arrangement of numbers from Sleeping Beauty, known as Aurora’s Wedding. The Prologue is a real stunner, which augurs well for what follows, Dutoit’s broadly symphonic approach better suited to this more overtly dramatic music than it is to the intimate details of The Nutcracker. Certainly, the fact that Aurora’s Wedding is a series of randomly plucked ‘plums’ rather than a carefully constructed whole means the issue of overall structure doesn’t arise. This allows Dutoit and the OSM to focus on the thrill of the moment, which they do very well indeed.

Frustratingly, rhythms are still a touch too unyielding – the dances of the duchesses and marchionesses rather foursquare, the mazurka (tr. 18) oddly po-faced. Really, there’s little affection here, and that’s cause for disappointment. Previn especially brings to these scores a degree of spontaneity that allows them to take flight in the most natural way; yes, Dutoit does come close at times – just listen to the feather-light loveliness of the pas de quatre (tr.21) and the dance of the Blue Bird and Princess Florine (tr. 23) – but that just isn’t enough for me.

I am pleased to have heard this Nutcracker, even though it’s not the treat I envisaged. That said, if you like big band Tchaikovsky then this could be the set for you. It’s a first-class recording, with thrilling amplitude and plenty of spectacle – especially in Aurora’s Wedding – but I did wonder if by 1992 this famous partnership had lost some of its magic. In any event, you’ll have to enlist the help of Messrs Google or Bing to find a copy. Happy hunting!

Dan Morgan