Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [90:17]
Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-1876): Pas de deux (Appendix) (orch. Vissarion Shebalin) [4:37]; Variation 1 (orch. Shebalin) [00:53]; Variation 2 (orch. Tchaikovsky) [00:52]; Coda (orch. Shebalin) [2:24]
Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 (1879): Polonaise from Act 3 [5:00]
Children’s Choir and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow/Alexander Vedernikov
rec. Moscow, 2006
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186091 SACD [2CDs: 104:03]

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without The Nutcracker, so I decided it was time to revisit this Bolshoi recording, which I first heard on SACD several years ago. It’s just one of many versions in the catalogue, including those by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (review), André Previn (with the LSO, not the lacklustre RPO remake) and Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique du Montréal (review). None of these is perfect, but all have something to recommend them. For me the superbly dramatic Sir Charles Mackerras and the LSO are still at the top of the tree (Telarc 80137); the sound is pretty spectacular, too.

So how do Vedernikov and his Bolshoi forces shape up in this, one of the loveliest and most open-hearted of Tchaikovsky’s scores? There were some tagging problems with this download, which took a while to fix with the help of a metadata editor; this is a glitch I've not encountered before. My response to the original SACD was somewhat ambivalent; yes, the recording is very good, but I felt Vedernikov’s Nutcracker lacked the element of fantasy - not to mention festive glitter - that others find in the piece. Would I feel differently this time around? In particular, how does the sound of this download compare with that of the Super Audio disc?

Quite well, is the short answer. There’s a glow to this recording that spreads through one’s system like a goblet of mulled wine. The gurgling woodwinds are very attractive, the unanimous brass are bracing and the timps add plenty of ballast when required. What I really miss, though, is Mackerras’s unfailing energy and impetus, Ansermet’s sense of theatre and Previn’s seamless delivery. That’s not to say Vedernikov’s performance is devoid of drama – the big moments in Act 1 are undeniably impressive – it’s just that he holds back at other key points in the score. Take his battle scene; it’s crisply done, but it has none of the raw excitement that makes Mackerras’s skirmishes so memorable.

Raw certainly isn’t a word that applies to either the Bolshoi’s playing or to Pentatone's revealing sonics. The downside is that Vedernikov, like his compatriot Valery Gergiev, likes to hum along; he’s very audible in quieter passages but he's not so intrusive elsewhere. Alas, I’m not as forgiving about his response to the second Act; there’s little sense of wonder in the Kingdom of the Sweets and the arrival of Clara and the Prince is nowhere near as thrilling as it can be. Also, the national and character dances need more personality than this; and while the Waltz of the Flowers is elegant enough it lacks the suppleness and spontaneity that, say, Dutoit and Mackerras find here.

I'm afraid Vedernikov's performance doesn't get any better; indeed, it comes uncomfortably close to the routine rumty-tumty of an end-of-season matinee. The fillers aren’t very inspiring either. The Soviet composer Vissarion Shebalin’s reconstruction of a rediscovered Pas de deux from Swan Lake is somewhat soupy, while the brief Variations 1, 2 and Coda are eminently forgettable. As for the Act 3 Polonaise from Eugene Onegin it’s dispatched with precious little flair or feeling.

A very dull Nutcracker; decent sound, though.

Dan Morgan


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