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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [84:12]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2013, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio download
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHSA5144 SACD [84:12]

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without The Nutcracker; one of Tchaikovsky’s most spontaneous, heart-catching creations, it seldom fails to please. Alas, that’s more than I can say for Neeme Järvi’s Bergen Swan Lake (review). I criticised him for being both brisk and brusque, qualities that one really doesn’t look for in that supple, endlessly inventive score; seek out Ernest Ansermet, André Previn and Charles Dutoit if you want to hear how it should be done. That triumvirate also rules in The Nutcracker, although the Previn/LSO version – like the others in his EMI/Warner Tchaikovsky ballet series - sounds rather fatiguing. I gather there are high-res re-masters of his Swan Lake and Nutcracker, which I hope to track down and review at some point.

The Ansermet, which has resurfaced on the budget Major Classics label, certainly doesn’t sound too good in that incarnation; that said, his performance brims with all the imagination and flair one expects from a true man of the theatre (review). If you want irrepressible high spirits and superb sound the Sir Charles Mackerras/LSO version – used as the soundtrack for Carroll Ballard’s 1986 film – is the one to go for (Telarc). And don’t overlook the lustrous, loving detail of Alexander Vedernikov and his Bolshoi band on a PentaTone SACD; it wasn’t a reading I warmed to at first, but subsequent auditions have persuaded me of its essential virtues.

The Bergen Philharmonic are much in demand these days, and listening to their Berlioz overtures with Sir Andrew Davis it’s not hard to see why (review). After sampling their first Janáček disc with Edward Gardner I’m convinced this will be a very fine partnership indeed. I can’t say the same about their work with Järvi – this Nutcracker completes their Tchaikovsky triptych – which doesn’t always show them at their virtuosic and sparkling best. Those fears are confirmed with this Nutcracker, although I doubt anyone will complain about the excellent sound; the Grieghallen’s dryish acoustic ensures that fine detail is well preserved at all times.

The overture has seldom glittered so, but it’s not long before Järvi’s odd phrasing and po-faced performance starts to drain the music of all its magic. Could the Christmas festivities be more dour, the dances more lifeless? The battle with the Mouse King passes for very little and the Kingdom of the Sweets is as alluring as a lint-furred lemon drop. Things improve slightly in the character dances, with the mincing Chinese and rumbustious Russian especially well drawn. Otherwise Järvi’s Nutcracker has little sense of a rapt, spell-binding narrative, and that’s simply unforgivable.

It gets worse. Järvi’s Toscanini-like rigidity constrains Tchaikovsky’s flowing rhythms, and despite some gorgeous playing the Waltz of the Flowers has a metronomic precision that’s as inimical to the dance as a killing jar is to a butterfly. His tendency to underline the ballet’s big moments – which are undeniably exciting – makes the rest of this performance seem even more pallid than it actually is. This Nutcracker is delivered Tempo di rumty tumty, with little sign of empathy or affection for the score. Indeed, it’s a measure of the unvarying dreariness of this performance that when the dream ends and reality reasserts itself one hardly notices the difference. That’s a crying shame, especially when the Bergen Philharmonic play so well.

I wouldn’t want to find this in my Christmas stocking; simply dreadful.

Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei