Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker Op. 71 (1892) [87:04]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Maninov
rec. Henry Wood Hall April 1995
RPO SP 006 [45:24+41:40]

This Nutcracker gets off to a lumpish start. After a run-of-the-mill Miniature Overture, the various components of the Act I opening - the violins' melody, the violas' steady eighth notes, and the clarinet off-beats - can't stay in sync. The March is nicely airborne, but in the episode with the flutes, the strings' accompanying chords tend to lag; this needed more proactive attacks and shorter articulations. So it goes through most of the act: lots of small flaws, none of which is an out-and-out deal-breaker but all contributing to a cumulative sense of insecurity. The late David Maninov seems not to have had the stick technique to line up the details properly, leaving the Royal Philharmonic to function more or less on its own.

Act II, where the writing is less intricately "symphonic," improves considerably - it's practically a different performance. The sonorities sound altogether better organized, and the music moves with a clearer sense of purpose, with a real incisiveness to the attacks. Some moments of uncertainty remain: the violins are slurry in the Trepak - though the basses in the middle section are spanking clean. There's audible indecision in the coda of Mother Gigogne and the Clowns: are we speeding up or not? We aren't. But, overall, this act does much to mitigate the negative impression left by the first.

What's sad about this is that Maninov, despite his apparent technical shortcomings, displays a real feeling for the music. As indicated, the March is unusually dynamic, and in the various triple-meter sections - the waltzes, including a glamorous Valse des fleurs, and the 6/8 Children's Galop in Act I - the rhythms have a nice lift and "swing." In the big Pas de deux, Maninov eschews the customary heavy-syrup approach in favor of lighter, airier phrasing and textures, though his shaping of the climax is heavy-handed.

Given the spotty podium guidance, the Royal Philharmonic acquits itself well. A moment or two - note the peaks of the cello phrases in the Pas de deux-- suggests that the strings aren't at full symphonic strength. Still, the orchestra sounds bigger than your average pit ensemble, and some of the sonorities, particularly in Act II, are glamorous, enhanced by a discreet hall ambience.

This performance certainly has more going for it than Svetlanov's Melodiya account, which I recently reviewed. But Maninov's insecure first act leaves his production no challenge to the reigning analog contenders: the Decca issues under Ansermet and Bonynge.

Steve Vasta

Merits, yes but no challenge to the reigning analog contenders: Ansermet and Bonynge