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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892) [84:16]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878) [44:46]
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
No booklet (download Pdf via Hyperion)
MARIINSKY MAR0593 SACD [62:08 + 66:54]

Berlioz, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, Valery Gergiev is clocking up albums faster than he is air miles. It’s remarkable how many engagements he manages each year, but there’s a trade-off in terms of quality. That’s all too clear in his recent recordings for LSO Live and the Mariinsky label, which veer between exceptional (rarely) and humdrum (often). As for his hard-working Mariinsky players their recent Prokofiev series in London suggests they too might benefit from a break.

Gergiev has recorded The Nutcracker and Fourth Symphony before – and not that long ago, either. I’ve reviewed a number of Nutcrackers over the years, and while there are some good ones out there the intensely dramatic – and superbly recorded – Sir Charles Mackerras/LSO version is still top of my tree (Telarc). Among the recommendable alternatives are Ernest Ansermet now on Decca Eloquence – brisk but unfailingly theatrical – and, also on Decca, Charles Dutoit; the latter’s svelte, big-band approach appeals to me more now than it did when I first heard it. At the other extreme are Alexander Vedernikov (Pentatone) and Neeme Järvi (Chandos), both of whom seem ill at ease in this sparkling work.

Then there’s the Fourth Symphony. ArkivMusic list more than 142 recordings, up from 127 the last time I checked. These range from the legendary Mravinsky in 1961 (Deutsche Grammophon) to Christian Lindberg in 2015 (BIS). I was mightily impressed by the latter, with the Arctic Philharmonic white-hot in the exhilarating finale. That was a Recording of the Month, as was the hell-for-leather Gennadi Rozhdestvensky performance from the 1979 Leeds Festival (ICA). Other fine versions include George Szell and the LSO (Decca, 1962), Mariss Jansons (Chandos,1984) and Lorin Maazel (Telarc, 1979).

The overture to Gergiev’s Nutcracker certainly has plenty of point, although his phrasing isn’t always as natural as I’d like. That said, The Christmas Tree finds the Mariinsky band in festive form, with delightful woodwind playing here and in the nicely articulated March and Children’s Galop. Gergiev is quite swift in the Dance of the Parents, but at least there’s no loss of momentum or interest. Drosselmeyer’s arrival is darkly equivocal – as it should be – and the ensuing dance rhythms have just enough give and take. The Dance of the Grandparents is statelier than some, but one has to make allowances for ague.

I’m encouraged thus far, not least by the fact that Gergiev has managed to create a real sense of magic. The genial playing and very atmospheric recording play their part, and although the conductor’s grunts and groans are audible they’re not intrusive enough to break the spell. I haven’t always been kind about the Mariinsky sound, but I have to say engineer Vladimir Ryabenko has done an outstanding job with this one. The Transformation Scene builds to a magnificently climax – what splendid cymbals and bass drum – and the battle, sharply characterised, is superbly rendered.

And it just gets better; indeed, The Pine Forest in Winter is as thrillingly expansive as I’ve ever heard it. Could it be that Mackerras has met his match? The Waltz of the Snowflakes is attractively presented – I do like Gergiev’s pacing here – and the offstage choir, a little sparse perhaps, is ideally placed. There’s some delectable harp playing too, and those grand tuttis are taut of sinew and clean of limb. Remarkably, Gergiev is consistently engaging and imaginative, something I don’t often say about him.

The Land of the Sweets is nicely done, although it’s a tad brisk at times. Otherwise there’s little to criticise at this point. Also, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince has terrific body, with more points of colour than most rivals seem to manage. The Spanish Dance is too rushed for my taste, but the upside is that the music is delivered with great zest. The Arabian Dance, less sinuous than some, reveals more orchestral detail than usual, and the Chinese Dance – flutes well caught – is just perfect. And although Gergiev’s Trepak lacks that last degree of excitement The Dance of the Reed Pipes is pleasing enough.

If I’m starting to sound ambivalent it’s because the performance has suddenly become rather ordinary. I’ve certainly heard more appealing accounts of the Waltz of the Flowers – it just isn’t very pliant – and there’s a rather bluff quality to the climaxes as well. Alas, that consistent engagement is now a distant memory; the Tarantella and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy strike me as routine and the Final Waltz is a peremptory affair. As for that usually breathtaking apotheosis Gergiev is plain vulgar; it jars with all that’s gone before.

I’m afraid that’s entirely typical of this conductor; his initial enthusiasm soon fades into what can best be described as a run-through. Unfortunately his account of the symphony is beyond redemption. After a striking start Gergiev throttles back in a most disconcerting fashion; also, there’s little of the buoyancy that others find here. Call this sostenuto? I think not. After that dull landscape comes the featureless plain that is the Andantino; the topography of the Scherzo is scarcely more interesting, and that juddering Finale is just bizarre. In short, a perverse and very forgettable performance. Decent sound, though.

Valery the variable strikes again; old favourites are unchallenged.

Dan Morgan


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