Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892)1 [86:07]
English Dance for Act II (arr. Lanchbery)2 [0:42]
Herman Severin LØVENSKIOLD (1815-1870)
La Sylphide (1836)3 [60:03]
1 Ambrosian Singers/John McCarthy, London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
2 Philharmonia Orchestra/John Lanchbery
3 Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Schmidt
rec. May 1972, Kingsway Hall, London (Nutcracker); March-April 1982, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London (English Dance); 1978, Copenhagen (La Sylphide). ADD
EMI CLASSICS 9 67694 2 [72:03 + 75:03]
I’m sure we all remember the first LPs or CDs we ever bought. Well, this version of The Nutcracker was one of my very first, two pristine LPs and booklet in a handsome, parti-coloured box. EMI chose similar designs for all the Previn/LSO Tchaikovsky ballet boxes, but sadly those have been ditched in favour of generic photographs this time round. These were fine sets in their time, much praised in the music press. And rightly so, as they belong to that mist fruitful period when this maestro and orchestra turned out one delectable disc after another, among them some fine Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Indeed, their version of the latter’s complete Romeo and Juliet – included in this batch or reissues – is still one of the finest around.
Of all Previn’s Tchaikovsky ballet sets – including the RPO Nutcracker from the 1980s – this 1972 Nutcracker is the one I’ve enjoyed most of all. John Lanchbery’s recordings of these scores with the Philharmonia – issued in striking red and silver Du Maurier boxes – came a little later, their Swan Lake still my benchmark for that work. Regrettably, Decca didn’t follow up Charles Dutoit and the Montreal orchestra’s splendid version of Swan Lake with a Nutcracker – now that would have been a treat – but at least the ballet’s popularity has ensured a steady trickle of recordings over the years.
Curiously, one of the finest versions of The Nutcracker to emerge in the past 25 years was recorded by Sir Charles Mackerras and the LSO to accompany Carroll Ballard’s filmed version of the ballet. I’m not a huge fan of these things, but the visual flair – not to mention the dancing of Pacific Northwest Ballet – impressed me enormously in the cinema. As far as I know this has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray, but at least we have the CDs to enjoy (Telarc CD 8137E). And what at a thrillingly dramatic performance this is, testament to the conductor’s years of experience in the theatre. In terms of sound this version – complete with a printed warning about the cannon shots in the battle scene – is up to the standards of the house, but for even greater realism and refinement Alexander Vedernikov’s Bolshoi version is without equal (PentaTone PTC 5186 091). This lovely score has rarely sounded so lustrous and alive, even if Vedernikov doesn’t always match Previn and Mackerras in terms of dramatic thrust.
Apart from its price advantage this EMI reissue also offers a short ‘bonus track’ – an English Dance for The Nutcracker, arranged by John Lanchbery – and a full-length recording of Herman Løvenskiold’s ballet La Sylphide. Two well-filled CDs, then, but how do the performances stack up? The Nutcracker overture quickly draws one into the magic of Christmas Eve in the Stahlbaum household. Previn and his orchestra are polished and precise from the outset, but in this newly remastered version the sound is very strident. Sadly, this is all too common in reissues of recordings from the 1960s and 1970s, and I often wonder whether a little more care at the remastering stage would make these discs a lot easier to listen to and enjoy.
Sonic grumbles aside, Previn phrases most seductively, the Grandfather’s Dance essayed with gentle dignity and charm, the swirling harp figures that accompany Clara and the Nutcracker every bit as delectable as I remember them. Previn also manages to keep a firm grip on the music, especially in the helter-skelter of the battle scene; adding to the drama are the crisp side drums and cymbals, which are ery well caught. And it’s a measure of Previn’s skill that he makes the transition to the journey through the snow – where the music falters and then broadens dramatically – sound so natural and unforced. As for the chorus they are perfectly positioned in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, and Previn brings the curtain down on the first Act with a splendid sense of theatre.
Comparisons? Well, Vedernikov has the more spectacular recording – the battle scene is a sonic tour de force – Mackerras the beefier one. Vedernikov’s tempi are closer to Previn’s in the journey through the snow, Mackerras sounding much more stately than either. The latter’s chorus – the Tiffin Boys – are placed quite far back in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, while Vedernikov’s more upfront singers come across with astonishing detail and subtlety. The PentaTone discs – hybrid SACDs – are in a class of their own and I doubt you’ll hear the many felicities of Tchaikovsky’s score revealed with such clarity as here. That said, listening to these rival recordings made me admire Previn’s reading all the more, not least for the wide-eyed wonderment he finds in this loveliest of works.
In Act II the music of the Kingdom of the Sweets is marred by that acid treble, the strings razor-edged in Clara’s scene with the Prince (No. 11). Fortunately the ensuing dances are despatched with so much panache it hardly seems to matter any more. The Spanish Dance has plenty of hauteur, the Arabians every bit as exotic and sinuous as I remembered them. The Chinese Dance is as crisp and nimble as it should be, while Trepak – the Russian Dance – is a real cracker, the LSO in fizzing form. In fact, there’s nothing to criticise here, or in the dances that follow, aside from that pesky glare in the brass and upper strings.
The Waltz of the Flowers has a wonderful lilt, the Pas de deux as poised and elegant as one could wish for – at least until the demented trumpets slice through orchestra. Doesn’t anyone listen to these discs before they’re released? I imagine not everyone will mind these sonic nasties as much as I do, but vintage performances as captivating as these deserve to be repackaged with much greater care. It’s inexcusable really, and I have to say the glare becomes almost intolerable in the grand music of the Coda, Final Waltz and Apotheosis. It’s enough to make you weep. And it doesn’t go away in the English Dance either, although that’s mercifully short.
I’m pleased to say the recording of La Sylphide is weightier and more spacious than The Nutcracker. The cymbals are particularly thrilling in the overture, which Ole Schmidt fires off with great gusto. Musically, Løvenskiold’s ballet is no great shakes, but it does offer a daisy-chain of lovely, danceable tunes. It’s not difficult to hear why it’s a perennial favourite with dancers and audiences alike, Schmidt making it seem more like a decent champagne than the sugary plonk it actually is. The Copenhagen orchestra certainly play with admirable thrust and verve, which goes a long way towards ensuring this tipple doesn’t lose its fizz too fast.
I doubt most buyers would want this set for La Sylphide, but it remains a substantial bonus nonetheless. And despite a close balance and some brightness – especially in the overworked brass and percussion – the recording/remastering puts EMI’s efforts with The Nutcracker to shame. That said, Previn’s Tchaikovsky ballets are a welcome reminder of his halcyon days with the LSO, and surely deserve to be reissued on the more prestigious – and better sounding – Great Recordings series. As for alternatives to The Nutcracker, it’s swings and roundabouts; Mackerras and Vedernikov will cost you more, but if you enjoy The Nutcracker as much as I do you’ll want them all.