Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [96:41]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss (1934, rev. 1949) [26:34]
Knaben des Kölner Domchores
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitri Kitaienko
rec. 5-9 October 2015, Studio Stolberger Straße, Cologne, Germany
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
OEHMS CLASSICS OC448 [51:18 + 71:57]

‘Valery the variable strikes again’ was my sign-off to Gergiev’s recent Nutcracker. I also noted that old favourites – among them Sir Charles Mackerras, Ernest Ansermet and Charles Dutoit – retained their place at the top of the tree. No sooner had I filed that Mariinsky review than Oehms released Dmitri Kitaienko’s Gürzenich recording of the piece. These forces impressed me in the Shostakovich symphonies, but it was their ‘radiant, and redefining’ account of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred that really made me sit up and take notice; indeed, the latter was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2010.

So what do they make of The Nutcracker, which follows their traversal of all the symphonies? I was encouraged by the overture, which is light and nicely pointed, but those hoping for some festive cheer will be sorely disappointed by what follows. The main problem is Kitaienko’s turgid tempi, which leach the score of all its charm. How on earth is anyone supposed to dance to this? Then again, Kitaienko’s overall timing of 96:41 says it all; compare that with Ansermet’s 83:49, Neeme Järvi’s 84:12, Gergiev’s 84:16 and Dutoit’s 88:01. Also, the studio sound lacks sparkle and all sense of space.

The best ballet recordings have a way of conjuring up the lighted stage; Ansermet’s and Mackerras’s Nutcrackers certainly do that, as do – at random – Jean Martinon’s Giselle and Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s Romeo and Juliet. All are classics, and their powerful sense of theatre is one of the reasons why. By contrast this new Nutcracker is stubbornly static, with absolutely no hint of magic. Even Gergiev manages to cast a deep spell over the first Act at least. No, it’s Kitaienko’s impossible pacing that does for this performance as surely as a stiletto between the ribs. Take the Dance of the Grandparents for example; it creaks and wheezes in a most undignified fashion.

Just as damaging is the unforgivable lack of momentum, of cumulative power. True, the transformation scene has weight and amplitude, but then the battle – so exhilarating on the Mackerras set – comes across as little more than a skirmish. Goodness, has this effervescent music ever sounded so flat, its lovely tunes churned out in such an unlovely way? Perplexed I pressed on, hoping for at least a modicum of pleasure in Acts 2 and 3. Alas, they’re just as etiolated and life-denying as anything we’ve heard thus far; indeed, this level of disengagement is a real puzzle, given the revealing light of their marvellous Manfred.

The showpieces are spectacularly unsuccessful – Trepak is unaccountably dull – and the ballet’s ‘signature tunes’, the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, show few signs of life. At this point I’d given up all hope of the patient being roused from its somnolent state. That said, I stayed to the bitter end, listening in vain for anything that might lift my spirits, even if only fleetingly. I’ve seen and heard some very disappointing performances of The Nutcracker in my time, but this is the dullest of them all. And there’s more bad news; the download isn’t gapless, which means there’s a brief, disfiguring pause between each and every track.

The Divertimento from Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet The Fairy’s Kiss is a four-movement concert suite arranged by the composer in 1934 and revised in 1949. His neo-Classical ballets demand a lightness of touch that’s missing from Kitaienko’s Nutcracker, so I was more than a little anxious about how this would go. As it happens, not terribly well. It’s all so routine – dogged, even – and that irons out much of the work’s pleasing contours and underplays its inner elegance. That said, the Danses Suisses come across reasonably well and the Pas de deux brings some much-needed animation to the proceedings. That’s not enough to rescue the performance, though.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical of Kitaienko’s Stravinsky I turned to Vladimir Jurowski’s account, recorded with the Russian National Orchestra a decade or so ago. Frankly, there’s no comparison; the RNO are deft and characterful throughout and the Pentatone recording – at least in its 24/96 version, also available from eClassical – has all the nuance and tonal sophistication the Oehms one doesn’t. I’m not a great fan of neo-Classical Stravinsky – I find it a little dry for my taste – but Jurowski’s lithe, rhythmically infectious reading is a joy to hear. The coupling, a spirited reading of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, makes this a most desirable issue.

Unaccountably etherised performances of two lively scores; disappointing sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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