Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker op.71 (1892) [84:16]
Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36 (1878) [44:46]
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 10 June and 29 September 2015 (symphony) and 16 June and 30 December 2015 (ballet)
MARIINSKY SACD MAR0593 [62:08 + 66:54]

Valery Gergiev has been chief conductor and artistic director of St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre since as long ago as 1988 and its overall director since 1996. Even so, he has not always enjoyed a good press when it comes to live theatrical performances of ballet. Some critics suggest that he has little enthusiasm for an art form that is primarily one for the eyes rather than the ears. Others - including me (review) - have speculated that he may dislike the limits to interpretative freedom that are necessitated during live performances in order to accommodate dancers’ practical requirements and physical limitations. A few have gone on to mount some quite vituperative attacks not only on him but on his whole ballet company management team. YouTube, for instance, hosts a couple of series of closely argued and provocatively titled films - The victims of the evil Mariinsky spell and Rapid decline of Mariinsky Ballet as [Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet] Fateyev abandons Vaganova Academy dancers - that are scathing in their anonymously-authored attacks.

This newly released 2015 Gergiev recording of The Nutcracker was not made, however, at a live ballet performance, thereby sparing us those familiar occasional thumps as dancers land heavily on the stage. Indeed, it wasn’t even made in the main Mariinsky Theatre. Instead the venue was the nearby concert hall, a beautiful modern space that was opened in 2007, where I imagine that the performance was taped under professionally-engineered studio conditions and without an audience. After all, how else can we explain the complete absence of the coughing or sniffling normally to be expected at the tail end of a Russian December?

With no extraneous bumps, coughs or sneezes - and with no need for the conductor to compromise his artistic vision in order to accommodate those pesky dancers - this recording preserves a performance that is really rather good. Well sculpted and balanced, it is also notably alive to the fine detail of the score. I was very much reminded, at times, of an earlier Gergiev studio account with the Kirov Orchestra - as the Mariinsky band was then known - that was greeted with some acclaim on its original release almost 20 years ago (Philips 462 114-2).

Gergiev’s way with the score has, however, changed somewhat in the intervening years. In general, the older version often tends to be a little more consistently sprightly. Indeed, its brisk approach was quite literally one of that disc's selling points at the time, with the Philips marketing department adding a front cover sticker that boasted "Complete ballet on 1 CD! playing-time 81+ minutes" - even though the rear cover simultaneously contradicted that assertion by stating "Total playing time: 1:20:58". Whichever the case, how bizarre it is to see a relatively modern release promoted to potential buyers on the basis that it was an economical purchase rather than that it was actually any good.

While Gergiev's new performance adds a few seconds or more to the majority of the numbers, in one or two cases he has made some rather more striking changes in the past two decades. Doddery old grandfather, for instance, now takes 6:16 over his dance (no.5), as opposed to 5:31 last time around, while, even more strikingly, the eponymous blooms execute the Waltz of the flowers (no.13) in a more leisurely 7:37 rather than 6:34. Even though the cumulative effect of such tinkering is to add only a little over three minutes to the overall timing, it does, I think, give a somewhat more relaxed and varied feel to the new account - as well as providing a justification for the decision to spread this Nutcracker over two discs.

That impression of a somewhat less high-pressured interpretation is further buttressed by the warmer and more mellow sound quality exhibited by the Mariinsky release. It's worth observing, however, that the brighter, more in-your-face - and equally well recorded - sound produced by the Philips engineers in 1998 isn't automatically bettered by this new release. Any preference between the two approaches will necessarily be entirely subjective and based on the listener’s personal taste.

Faced with the need to fill the second disc, the Mariinsky team has settled on Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony, a work described by my colleague John Phillips, in the course of reviewing another Gergiev disc, as "the most balletic of the symphonies" (review). While I would accord that particular accolade instead to the underrated third - half an hour or so of which was famously utilised by George Balanchine for the Diamonds finale to his glittering 1967 New York City Ballet creation Jewels - it's true that substantial parts of the fourth symphony are eminently danceable. As such it sits quite satisfactorily alongside The nutcracker, even though - in spite of its substantial length and undoubted musical weight - its markedly smaller billing on the CD cover indicates that on this occasion it's perceived as the secondary attraction.
This account of the fourth is decent enough, if somewhat lacking in individuality. Any claims to distinctiveness lie in the opening two movements, both of which are taken in a rather controlled manner. When Gergiev brings in the first at 19:16, for example, he is taking longer about it than all but two of the other conductors on my shelves: Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra (1929), 17:27; Furtwängler/Vienna PO (1951), 19:26; Argenta/Suisse Romande Orchestra (1955), 17:11; Sanderling/Leningrad PO (1956), 19:21; Monteux/Boston SO (1959), 17:27; Mravinsky/Leningrad PO (1960), 18:43; Dorati/London SO (1961), 17:25; Markevitch/London SO (1963), 18:23; Svetlanov/USSR State SO (1967), 18:51; Karajan/Berlin PO (1977), 18:47; USSR Radio SO/Fedoseyev (1984), 18:06; and Svetlanov/Russian Federation State SO (1990), 17:37. That same tendency is even more apparent in the second movement where Gergiev's account is, at 11:28, substantially the longest of them all. Indeed, only one of his competitors even passes even the 10 minute mark (Mengelberg 8:46; Furtwängler 10:22; Argenta 8:42; Sanderling 9:48; Monteux 8:10; Mravinsky 9:15; Dorati 9:13; Markevitch 9:37; Svetlanov (1967) 8:25; Karajan 9:02; Fedoseyev 9:23; and Svetlanov (1990) 9:16).

Taken in isolation, those figures might suggest that Gergiev is simply dawdling. In fact, however, his tempi are, for long stretches, entirely unremarkable. Once in a while, however, he will spring a surprise by slowing down - sometimes quite dramatically - to focus on and illuminate a particular brief moment. That combination of a clear ultimate destination and a constantly flexible approach to various musical landmarks en route is generally well executed and makes the first two movements the most interesting ones in this performance. The last two, while equally well performed and recorded, are, on the other hand, more conventional in both timing and general approach. In fact, they almost succeed in giving the impression that Gergiev has lost interest in the symphony's second half. Calling them an anticlimax to what has gone on before would be unfair, but they are without question something of a disappointment.

My colleague Gwyn Parry-Jones once observed that Valery Gergiev is “not everyone's cup of tea” (review) and others have sometimes suggested that his busy globetrotting schedules explain why he seems to be not equally committed to every performance. Listening to this disc, it is clear that the new Nutcracker, while not an inferior achievement, doesn't automatically displace his earlier Phillips account. Similarly, there's not enough that's special about this new account of Tchaikovsky's fourth to cause anyone who’s happy with an existing recording on their shelves to feel obliged to add it to their collection.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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