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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 Kitajenko
rec. 5-9 October 2015, Studio Stolberger Straße, Cologne, Germany
OEHMS CLASSICS OC448 [51:18 + 71:57]

This new set of the complete Nutcracker Ballet from Dmitrij Kitajenko has left me in something of a quandary. In recent years the combination of Kitajenko and the ever-excellent Güzernich-Orchester Köln on Oehms Classics has produced impressive and individual cycles of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Symphonies. For Capriccio the same performers produced powerful Shostakovich & Prokofiev cycles. In every set Kitajenko produced interpretations of undoubted insight - often overwhelmingly convincing, occasionally perplexing, but never run of the mill. Which is why this Nutcracker - the generous coupling of Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss is another matter - perplexes me. With occasional passages which rouse themselves from a collective ordinariness this is a strangely underengaging performance, to the point where I really do wonder whether Kitajenko likes the work much. All too often musical choices are generalised or routine. Because the Güzernich-Orchester Köln is a fine orchestra and Oehms Classics an excellent label the general quality of playing and engineering is very good but with too little coming from the podium to lift it out of the routine.

I have read elsewhere that this is a 'slow' performance. By the stopwatch alone that might well be true. But I would have two points to make to counter that as a major criticism; firstly - in all of the danced productions of Nutcracker I ever played the general tempi used to accompany dance are almost always slower than what an orchestra alone might perceive as ideal. Secondly, I much prefer a steady and poised approach to say Gergiev’s hectic compression of the work onto a single CD. It has to be said that an abiding characteristic of Kitajenko’s interpretative approach across all the symphonic cycles previously mentioned is that he leans towards the broad rather than the bright. If a conductor can convince me, either as player or listener, I am happy to go with that. For direct comparison with this version I have chosen a single other complete performance; an early CD version - little-regarded and often dismissed - from Hans Vonk and the Dresden Staatskappelle on Capriccio. The reason for this choice is to compare two great German orchestras with ‘foreign’ conductors on labels with good reputations for sonics. Vonk is no speed-merchant either, but the level of characterisation is on another level.

The Nutcracker is a near-perfect compositional jewel. Playing around 100 minutes - originally one half of a double bill with Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta - it showcases the composer's extraordinary melodic and orchestrational skill. The complete absence of any narrative after two-thirds of Act I is more than compensated for by the sheer richness of the score. Alongside the character dances made famous - too famous? - by the suite extracted from the ballet are the two great emotional peaks skilfully placed one in each Act of the Act I Scene between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince and the equally cathartic Pas de Deux for the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. If the little dances alone do not satisfy the audience these two great pieces are the equal of any other excerpts in Tchaikovsky. Both rely on a compositional trick that is both a strength and weakness of Tchaikovsky’s art; the simple repetition of a basic phrase gaining weight, dynamic and instrumentation as it builds. The key for the performers is to pace these repetitions to lead to a cathartic release. I would have put money on Kitajenko building these climaxes to perfection - but he does not. The repetitions are prosaic, the phrasing foreshortened and even the orchestration clouded. Take the first ‘Scene (in the Pine Forests)’ - the first main climax at bar 39 is derailed by an excessive rallentando across the barline, but where is the ardour, the urgency, the passion! Worse, at bar 46 [track 9 2:50] the strings take a cascading counter-melody and the simple step-wise ascending melody is given to the trumpets marked in the score fff a 2 marcatissimo. That is meant to be loud and dominant - here the passage in the brass can be barely heard at all. Vonk’s Dresden trumpets lead the line herocially - easy to imagine the ballerina riding the wave of orchestral power aided in no little way by the sheer weight of string tone the Dresdeners can generate. I would prefer a bigger more ringing pair of crash cymbals than the ones on display in Dresden but Vonk's pacing is quite superb, crowned by a thundering timp roll. Earlier in Act II and throughout Act II Vonk and the Capriccio engineers ensure that the glories of Tchiakovsky’s scoring register to greatest effect. The darkly woody bass clarinet and sinuous Cor Anglais are especially effective as is, of course, the first use in the repertoire for the Celesta in the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’.

The different level of emotional engagement is equally palpable in the Act II Pas de Deux as well. This time the scale descends and the first time the phrase is heard the Dresden cellos attack it with real bite and phrase away beautifully, the Cologne players follow a similar shape - frankly who would not - but it loses energy as it descends and diminuendos so that the line sags. The Oehms recording is warm but occasionally tubby as far as the lower lines are concerned, which in part gives the sense of lines plodding. The venue is the same as that used by the company for several of the Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle and curiously seems to have more bite for the Stravinsky which according to the liner was recorded as part of the same sessions. Both Vonk and Kitajenko use children's voices for the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ which I am sure is the right choice. Vonk’s Dresdner Kapellknaben are more ‘churchy’ with Kitajenko's Knaben des Kölner Domchores less blended. I like both - and far to be preferred over anything hinting at the matronly. Neither performance opts to include the ‘extra’ toy instruments in the battle sequence. This is always tricky for performers and engineer/producers: whether to go for something like the 1812 Overture in miniature - all spectacular cannon and high-octane orchestral effects or be true to the spirit of the original - this is after all a battle between mice and toy soldiers. Kitajenko is simply too pedestrian here - only some 20 seconds slower than Vonk but with no cut and thrust - although he kicks the pace on about half way through. The score stipulates a tamburo infantilo which Kitajenko ignores and uses a straight snare drum (with snares up). Vonk uses - I am guessing - a small side drum with snares off which sounds just right.

There are some lovely passages in this performance by Kitajenko but they are simply too scarce and the competition too fierce for this to be considered a preferable alternative to just about any other version. There is some confusion with the tracking as listed. The liner gives most of the first CD titles that do not relate to the printed score. So unless this is for a different production which uses the standard music in different ways this would appear to be simply wrong; track 5 is not ‘Drosselmeier’s present’, as listed, but ‘The Grandfather’s dance’. Track 8 is not ‘The dance of the Adults[?]’ but the battle, 9 is the Scene in the Pineforest and 10 is just ‘The Waltz of the snowflakes’

The coupling is interesting, unusual, generous and much better performed. To the degree that I wonder if this was the work Kitajenko was interested in recording and the 'main' ballet was the filler for that. The Fairy's Kiss is Stravinsky neo-Romantic homage to Tchaikovsky which he created by orchestrating a selection of the older composer’s piano works and songs as well as adding original music ‘in the style of...’. Kitajenko offers the suite from the ballet - titled Divertimento. But whereas the famous Nutcracker Suite barely contains a quarter to a third of the full score, this Divertimento is well over half of the full score. Whereas with the Tchaikovsky I would urge listeners to hear the full score since so much of the great music in it is not included in the Suite I think it could be argued that the main material is in the Divertimento. The difference in performing style is very marked - immediately there is an alertness and bite quite absent from the sleep-walking Nutcracker. Listen to the very first bars - the strings having an ebb and flow to their phrasing that produces a vocal quality that is absolutely right. This is the Kitajenko I have admired so much before. The Köln strings have an extra warmth and flexibility that the Russian National Orchestra as recorded by Pentatone with Mikhail Jurowski cannot match. In this work I do have a soft spot for Neeme Jarvi's complete account on Chandos and a relatively little version by David Atherton and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The latter is interestingly rather anti-Romantic - very well played if somewhat detached.

So overall something of a pig in a poke rather than the expected box of delights. Kitajenko admirers should hear the Divertimento but for the main work this is no Christmas cracker.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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