In the early stereo period, eminent conductors -
Antal Dorati, Artur Rodzinski, and, above all, Ernest Ansermet - regularly
turned out stylish recordings of The Nutcracker
. After the last
two I reviewed - Svetlanov's coarse, graceless account (Melodiya
) and Maninov's inept one (RPO
- I feared that those days were gone. Fortunately,
Mikhail Pletnev shows that the old magic isn't completely lost.
First off, the post-Soviet Russian National Orchestra produces tone
so polished that veteran listeners might well not identify the players
as Russian. The horns are firm, neither watery nor wobbly; woodwinds,
while distinctive in timbre, blend well as a choir; strings are warm,
but their phrasing is neatly manicured and tapered, not shaggy. These
suave sounds outclass those of Svetlanov's USSR State Symphony by leagues.
Indeed, the RNO surpasses Ansermet's Suisse Romande Orchestra in technical
expertise, though it can't match that ensemble's uniquely translucent
Interpretively, Pletnev has managed to preserve the positive
aspects of Russian orchestral playing: the bright, forward ensemble
sound, the lyrical commitment, and the high energy level. The tutti
particularly in Act One, are grand, full, and solid. The conductor's
care over expressive details is gratifying: the clarinet eases gracefully
into the middle section of the opening scene; later, the introductory
bars of Grandfather's Dance bring a similar sense of "pickup".
In much of Act One, however, the dynamism isn't always accompanied by
a comparable finesse of execution. In the crisp Petit galop des enfants
the 6/8 passage beginning at 1:25 goes with both lift and weight, but
the balance is off at 2:11, with the string and wind scales obscuring
the trumpet's melody. Slogging chords weigh down the passage beginning
at 3:47 of the Scène
. The Departure of the Guests is taut
and dramatic, but after 5:30 the reed triplets keep threatening to come
unstuck from the theme, or perhaps vice versa
Beginning with the easy, lyrical unfolding of the forest scene, however,
things mostly right themselves. The darting, anxious start to the Waltz
of the Snowflakes
scene immediately draws the listener in. The opening
of Act II is leisurely and expansive, and Pletnev moves straightforwardly
through the Nutcracker's entrance, without any portentous grandstanding.
The characteristic dances, for once, have plenty of character: the faster
dances are crisp and lively; the slower ones atmospheric, even moody.
An awkward ritard at the end of the Danse des mirlitons
a sloppy landing, but the conductor recovers with forthright address
for Mother Gigogne's entry, and highlights the piquancy of the quirky
waltz for the clowns. Indeed, one of the subtle incidental pleasures
of Pletnev's performance is the distinctive character he finds for each
of the waltzes. There's lovely breadth to the Waltz of the Snowflakes
a translucent buoyancy to the Waltz of the Flowers
, though the
tempo is slowish for dancing; and a hearty swing to the Apotheosis
When all's said and done, the flaws, while passing, keep this fine performance
just below the level of my longtime favorites: the gleaming Ansermet
(Decca), the lustrous Bonynge (also Decca), and the warmly played and
recorded Dorati/Concertgebouw (Philips - I've never understood the acclaim
for his tense, wiry-sounding Mercury
account). Pletnev's handling of fine points, however, makes it a worthy
supplement to one of those others.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.