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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op.71 (1891-1892)
Bergen Pikekor, Bergen Guttekor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 2013

Neeme Järvi’s earlier recordings for Chandos of Swan Lake and The sleeping beauty with these same forces have divided critical opinion. We see this not least on MusicWeb International with Dan Morgan and Nick Barnard being much less impressed than Dave Billinge. The complaints have centred around the conductor’s dramatic interpretation, and most notably some speeds that have been regarded as excessively fast. My initial reactions were that these concerns might well be justified, with the whole of the ballet squeezed onto one CD, albeit one of abnormal length. Comparisons with such long-established interpretations such as that by Ernest Ansermet — one of the oldest stereo versions in the catalogue — show that Ansermet was at times even quicker. This can be experienced in the headily romantic introduction to Act Two; and Järvi certainly shows no temptation to rush. Admittedly his reading of the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (track 22) is on the fast side; but Tchaikovsky’s marking for this movement is a decidedly equivocal Andante non troppo, which could be read as ‘not too fast’ or ‘not too slow’ as the mood takes you. I also note that at the head of the celesta part Tchaikovsky gives an instruction in French: “The artist who plays this part must be a good pianist” (my own translation and emphasis) so clearly he was expecting a degree of bravura in the famous celesta solo.

Otherwise this is a thoroughly enjoyable and very dramatic reading of the score of Tchaikovsky’s late ballet. There's none of the charmlessness of which Dan Morgan complained in Swan Lake. Indeed the pointing of the music is always precisely relevant, although the microphone balance avoids the highlighting of the percussion part — not uncommon in recordings of this score. This is to the extent that some of Tchaikovsky’s pianissimo effects verge on the brink of inaudibility. I am not altogether sure either about the use of a children’s chorus in the Waltz of the Snowflakes (track 10). I know that Tchaikovsky allows for this as an alternative in the score, and many productions follow that procedure but the ethereal sound of women’s voices behind the scene is surely better to convey the sense of mystery.

These are minor quibbles in the face of what is a magnificently realistic recorded performance which features an orchestra whose playing seems to go from strength to strength. I most certainly do not get the impression that Dan Morgan gained in Swan Lake that “Järvi has clearly lost his edge here”. There have been occasions in the past when one has felt that this prolific conductor is simply undertaking too much work to allow himself really to get to grips with the music. At the same time his restless exploration of the rare fringes of the repertory have often yielded stunning results. Here, in one of the central canonic works of the ballet, he is up against some formidable competition from rivals extending over a period of fifty years or more. Nonetheless this is a thoroughly engaging performance which will delight those who have collected the earlier releases in this Bergen/Tchaikovsky ballet series. It will also have its attractions for others – like myself – who come new to them.

Tchaikovsky, I remember reading somewhere, bridled at the Tsar’s description at the first performance of The Nutcracker of the music as “very nice”, regarding the symphonic and dramatic aspects of the work as equally important. Järvi certainly takes full notice of these elements, and the result is sufficient to satisfy all but the sweetest of teeth. The extreme length of the CD certainly does not seem to constrain things in any way, and the drama is given plenty of room to breathe. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

I should add that, despite the constraints of the format of a single disc in a jewel case, the booklet notes by David Nice (given in English, German and French) are a model of comprehensive coverage. They discuss not only the music but also give a full account of the scenario which Tchaikovsky set out to illustrate. The uncredited photograph of the orchestra at Bergen harbour in 2013 is one of the most strikingly original I have seen.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan