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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [83:49]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. October 1958, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
MAJOR CLASSICS M2CD001 [42:35 + 41:14]
The ballet recordings of Ernest Ansermet – who was as much at home in the orchestra pit as he was in the concert hall – have a very special place in the catalogue. I have fond memories of his Swan Lake, two Decca LPs presented in a gatefold sleeve and soon worn out from repeated playings. For some reason I’ve never heard his complete OSR Nutcracker – recorded in 1958, not 1959, as stated on Major Classics’ website – so this budget-price reissue seemed like a good opportunity to rectify that omission. It has already appeared in a Brilliant Classics box, packaged with Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, also at a very attractive price.
Major Classics is new to me, but a quick trawl of their website nets a number of what one could reasonably call ‘major classics’ culled from the back catalogues of Decca and others. I have no idea whether this Nutcracker has been re-mastered – given the bargain price I suspect not – and as I haven’t heard the earlier issues I can’t say how this reissue compares in sonic terms. However, I can say that the sparkling overture is one of the loveliest – and swiftest – versions I’ve heard. What a marvellous sense of anticipation, and how ear-pricking the sound.
Ansermet certainly doesn’t dawdle, but at this stage he isn’t rushed either. The bright, clear recording has a glitter that suits these festive, candle-lit scenes rather well, and individual instruments – all those harp swirls in particular – are well caught. Hardly surprising, given the Decca’s team’s pioneering work in Geneva at the time. One just has to sample the high-res re-masters of, say, Ansermet’s Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune to realise how advanced these early stereo efforts really were (review).
True, the upper strings in this Nutcracker are more than a little glassy, and there’s not very much depth either, but for sheer excitement and thrust Ansermet is in a class of his own. Others may find more polish and poetry in these delectable dance tunes – Mackerras on Telarc and Vedernikov on PentaTone come to mind – but Ansermet is apt to astound with his supple rhythms and sure sense of drama. There’s an almost Viennese grandeur to the Grandparents’ Dance, which then leads into a songful and seamless account of the Departure of the Guests.
The hurly burly of the battle scenes is adroitly done, and the forwardly balanced harp executes a telling dissolve as we plunge into this world of enchanted imaginings. The trumpets scythe through the mix to exhilarating effect, and the side drums have all the snap and crack one could possibly want. There isn’t much front-to-back perspective in this recording, but the stereo spread is pretty convincing. As for the pine forest scene it’s well projected – it’s a little too fast, though – and Ansermet goads the OSR into a bold, brightly-lit apotheosis. It’s all very unsentimental – not necessarily a bad thing in music that’s associated with an excess of E numbers – and the off-stage chorus is as clear-eyed as I’ve ever heard it.
Ansermet brings the curtain down on the first Act with panache – the sense of a live theatrical event is superbly conveyed – and he opens the second with a swift, ringing rendition of the Kingdom of the Sweets. The OSR plunder Tchaikovsky’s exquisite colour palette and Ansermet’s deft brushwork completes a richly imagined landscape. This isn’t the most subtle of Nutcrackers, but it’s certainly one of the most propulsive I can recall, either in the theatre or on record.
Clara and the Prince’s music is terribly fierce in the tuttis, and the ensuing national setpieces are prone to aggression too. The upfront balance means the castanets are very audible in the Spanish Dance, and Ansermet ensures the coilsome Arabian tunes are suitably sinuous. As for the Chinese Dance and the breathless Trepak, they may be a little untidy at the edges – and the Flutes are much too swoony – but such is the pell-mell of this performance that it hardly seems to matter. However, the razored edge to this daisy chain of big tunes is a tad wearying after a while. Thank goodness for the soothing balm of a pliant, rather lovely pas de deux, although that too becomes rather strident at the close.
Ansermet’s flair for rhythm shines through in the two Variations, which feature some luscious celesta playing in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Coda, Final Waltz and Apotheosis are dispatched without much ado – how I began to long for a some light and shade, some added warmth – but there’s no doubting the heat and passion of this most theatrical Nutcracker. Ansermet brings the curtain swishing down the way he plays this music – most emphatically.
I’m pleased to have heard this performance at last, but for all its incidental pleasures it doesn’t begin to displace Mackerras and Vedernikov in my affections. Perhaps a more sympathetic re-mastering would tame that troublesome treble; EMI could do the same for Previn’s classic LSO account, which also sounds unpardonably uncouth compared with the velvety, seductive sonics I remember from the original LPs.
Swift but overwhelmingly theatrical; a no-nonsense Nutcracker.
Dan Morgan