TWO REVIEWS HERE
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker – ballet in two acts, Op. 71 (1891-92)
Libera - boy vocal group (Waltz of the Snowflakes)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 29-31 December 2009 Berlin Philharmonie. DDD
Full tracklist at end of review
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6316212 [43:47 + 42:37]
Since joining the Berlin Philharmonic as their principal conductor Sir Simon Rattle has made, by my reckoning twenty five recordings. They encompass an eclectic mix covering some twenty-three composers. Many thought that Rattle would take much British music to Berlin but this has not been the case. Surprisingly his only English representation has been Britten, Elgar and Holst with short works by Matthews and Turnage.
Naturally every new recording from this source creates a great deal of interest and the present release is no exception. The Rattle message-board knockers are at it already. Deriding his choice of The Nutcracker. Even criticising him for recording a composer like Tchaikovsky. Saying what happened to the radical conductor that recorded Turnage’s Drowned Out; Kai and Three Screaming Popes; Maw’s Odyssey and Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.1? I should think that it’s simple economics. These days the major orchestras tend only to record works that they are confident will sell in large numbers. It’s true that Tchaikovsky is one of the Berlin Phil’s most performed composers. However in the Rattle CD discography this is the first Tchaikovsky recording. Rattle hasn’t always been a fan as he explains in the booklet. For me the principal artistic reason for deciding which music to record is quality so The Nutcracker is an easy and logical choice. Oh, yes and for economic reasons too the disc will sell and almost certainly in large numbers.
First performed in 1892 the orchestral suite was a great hit. Less successful was the first staging at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg a year later. For many decades the ballet lagged behind Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty in the popularity stakes. Today it is undoubtedly one of Tchaikovsky’s best loved compositions and the most performed of all ballets. This musical fairytale is a seasonal favourite as the scenario centres around Christmas Eve with the magician Drosselmeyer and the young girl Clara’s present of a Nutcracker doll. The plot follows the incredible adventures of Clara and the Nutcracker through the Winter Snow/Pine Forest and the Kingdom of the Sweets in Confiturembourg.
Rattle and the Berlin Phil recorded the second act of The Nutcracker across three live concerts at the Berlin Philharmonie on 29-31 December 2009. The three concerts celebrated Silvesterkonzert, Germany’s New Year’s celebrations. Also on the programme was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by Lang Lang. The first act of The Nutcracker was recorded around the same period but without an audience.
The EMI recording is available in various editions. I have what the label call the ‘Experience Edition’. This is a special, limited edition double CD set within a sturdy 52 page hardcover book. This details the history and context through a series of photographs, illustrations and essays including an introduction from Rattle. The wrap cover includes access to additional online content on the simonrattle.com/nutcracker website via an access code. I have watched some of the exclusive footage from Rattle’s Silvesterkonzert 2009 that was recorded live for this recording. There are also short interviews with some of the Berlin Phil players with English subtitles when needed. Also contained is an audio accompaniment of some of the music and some sheet music can be downloaded. MP3 ringtones; wallpapers and mobile wallpapers are also available for download. There is also a 24 hour ticket to allow unlimited access to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall for live broadcasts and archive recordings. The ‘Standard Edition’ is a two disc release of The Nutcracker on EMI 6463852 with access to what are described as ‘digital extras’. There is a ‘Discovery Edition’ which is a single disc of highlight’s on EMI 6421222 and there is also an iTunes LP for download. Full details of the various editions are contained on the site: www.simonrattle.com/nutcracker
I have attended Berlin Phil concerts twice this year. They are certainly one of the world’s elite orchestras and the majority of the players perform to a high solo standard. Together, under the right conductor, their sound can be quite awe-inspiring. Rattle is certainly the right conductor and on this recording the playing is of the highest quality. With a keen grasp of direction the players respond by achieving the highest levels of controlled expression. With invigorating rhythms and vivid colours the drama is fresh and convincing.
The famous melody of the miniature Nutcracker March is joyful and highly engaging. Here I loved the scurrying pizzicato figures on the low strings. In the Waltz of the Snowflakes Rattle has provided a Christmas sleigh-ride feel with jingling bells, effervescent woodwind and a boys choir. There is a cool and fresh open air feel to the scene of the Kingdom of the Sweets as they approach the castle in their boat. In the Divertissement the Spanish Dance a Bolero marked Allegro brillante is a castanet-bedecked romp that sparkles with life. Exotic and sultry, the Arabian Dance is beautifully played and highly affecting. I was struck by the smoothly mellow clarinet in its low registers. The short interchange between the oboe and cor anglais is simply glorious.
It’s hard to get away from the associations with the Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate commercial in the captivating Dance of the Flutes with its superb silvery flutes and contrasting trumpet. Right from the splendid harp introduction to the Waltz of the Flowers the sumptuous playing is remarkable. Regarded as the high point of the ballet the Pas de deux with its magnificent melody increases in weight to thrilling effect especially in the blazing climax. The memorable Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy is mesmerising. Its singing theme is given to the celesta with reply from the bass clarinet.
Due out in February 2011 is a new release of the Mahler Symphony No.2 from Rattle and the Berlin Phil with Kate Royal and Magdalena Kožená and the Rundfunkchor Berlin on EMI Classics 6473635. Illness prevented me attending one of the October Berlin performances of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 from which this recording was made so I am particularly keen to hear this new recording. I understand that the digital download is already available.
I enjoyed this disc of Rattle’s The Nutcracker immensely and it will be one of my Records of the Year for 2010. Beautifully played and recorded this sumptuously presented release will I’m sure be a runaway Christmas success. Maybe one day the Berlin Phil will record the Vaughan Williams symphonies; now that would be something.
Beautifully played and recorded this sumptuously presented release will I’m sure be a runaway Christmas success.
And another perspective – from Rob Barnett
Universal have assembled a People’s Mahler set. It’s made up of Universal-held recordings selected via a plebiscite among music-lovers. How much easier and compact it would be to assemble a People’s Nutcracker made up of movements drawn from suites and complete ballets. Variations in recording quality would be inevitable but it would be an interesting exercise. For this listener Rozhdestvensky in Act 1 will be a prime choice as will Stokowski in Act II – especially his 1973 LPO Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The present de luxe recording has less ‘face’ and character than Stokowski but feels, on the other hand, more faithful to the score. Certainly it is magnificently performed and recorded. Rattle drives the fast material hard and make the more animated and rhetorical episodes throb with passion. Poetry is present but it tends to be reticently put across or held back. One other quibble: I thought the wooden-ratchet rattle of the Nutcracker could have sounded more vivid.
The presentation is stunning with a 60 page hardcover book (English, French and German), a 2,000 word note on Rattle’s career, a 900 word synopsis and a 300 word introduction from Rattle. Visually the container format in the Experience Edition is sumptuous with Hoffmann illustrations, pictures from the first production, vivid set and costume sketches and programmes/posters from a range of productions.
There are advantages to insularity. Despite the melting pot diversity of the USA its record companies rarely include liner-note translations out of English in their CD issues. Within the EU translations are de rigueur in most cases. Thick booklets of the present type deliver less than they appear to promise given the need for translations.
EMI have gone to town with various CD versions: a single CD of highlights for £7.50, the standard 2CD set for £11.75 and most desirable of all the 2CD Experience Edition which is said to be a limited edition (one wonders whether it is any more limited in numbers than the other two versions) at £19.50.
There you have it. A celebrity recording performed to exalted standards. Not perhaps as touching as it might have been but fortunate the child who discovers the Nutcracker experience at Christmas through this set.
Fortunate the child who discovers the Nutcracker experience at Christmas through this set.
1. Miniature Overture 3:09
2. No. 1 - The Decoration of the Christmas Tree 3:47
3. No. 2 - March 2:25
4. No. 3 - Children's Galop and Entry of the Parents 2:16
5. No. 4 - Arrival of Drosselmeyer 5:28
6. No. 5 - Scene - Grandfather's Dance 6:14
7. No. 6 - Clara and the Nutcracker 6:19
8. No. 7 - The Battle 3:26
9. No. 8 - In the Pine Forest 3:58
10. No. 9 - Waltz of the Snowflakes/Libera 6:42
1. No. 10 - The Kingdom of Sweets 3:50
2. No. 11 - Clara and the Prince 4:58
3. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Chocolate: Spanish Dance 1:12
4. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Coffee: Arabian Dance 3:53
5. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Tea: Chinese Dance 1:12
6. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Trepak: Russian Dance 1:09
7. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Dance of the Reed Pipes 2:29
8. No. 12 - Divertissement:: Mother Gigogne 2:33
9. No. 13 - Waltz of the Flowers 6:55
10. No. 14 - Pas de deux 5:06
11. Variation I: Tarantella0:39
12. Variation II: Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy 2:24
13. Coda 1:21
14. No. 15 - Final Waltz and Apotheosis 4:51