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; June, September & December 2015
CD stereo layer reviewed.
MARIINSKY MAR0593 SACD [62:08 + 66:54]

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have The Nutcracker in their blood, and they’ve already recorded it three times: once on CD for Philips in 1998, and then twice on film for Decca in 2007 and Warner in 2012 (review). Consequently, they play it here as to the manner born, and I found their performance delightful.

Gergiev doesn’t always bring enough consistency to the score – the Overture is too slow and then the opening number of Act 1 feels too fast - and there are several set piece dances in Act 2 that speed up as they go along. He is a musically controversial figure, not least after his variable tenure in charge of the LSO. However, you can’t deny the skill and brilliance of his Mariinsky players, who are marvellous throughout. The violins trip their way delicately through Tchaikovsky’s magical score with great playfulness, before turning in a performance of really quite arresting magnitude for the great Pas de deux at the end of Act 2. The twinkle on the winds is fantastic throughout, more for the scene setting than for the big showpiece moments – listen to the delicacy with which they portray the midnight scene before the battle with the rats, for example – and the big dances have a sweep to them that is quite entrancing.

The set pieces sound wonderful. The Waltz of the Snowflakes glitters beautifully, and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance feels pleasingly light on its feet. Each of the national dances are very well done, too. The trumpet in the Spanish Dance is lighter than air, the Reed Pipes are beautifully subtle, and there is great sweep to Mother Ginger and the Clowns, and, to be fair to him, when Gergiev is on form he generates great excitement. The Chinese Dance waddles and then leaps, and there is engrossing momentum to both Mother Ginger’s dance and the dance of the Prince with the Sugar Plum Fairy, not to mention the beautiful ending as the dream ends and Clara comes back to reality. So I found this an appealing and recommendable Christmas treat, helped by excellently clear recorded sound and some good booklet notes.

The Fourth Symphony is another matter, a more middle-of-the-road performance that doesn’t threaten any established rivals. The opening fanfare, which should pin you to the back of your seat, is muddied and occluded rather than blazing and clean, so that the scalp never prickles in the way that it should. After that the main theme on the violins wilts and droops rather than excites, though I quite enjoyed the gloopy woodwinds and shimmering strings of the second theme. The development whips up a bit more of a storm, but by then it's kind of too late. The flowing cantilena of the oboe solo that opens the Andantino is very convincing, as is the subsequent cello line. The tempo becomes a bit self-indulgent, however, and it’s also inconsistent, Gergiev pulling it around unattractively and to no great effect.

The second half of the symphony is generally better. The Scherzo is fine, and the high winds sound fantastic in the Trio. The opening of the finale is properly exciting, building up a genuine head of steam, and it helps that it is much more precise than the symphony’s opening. Gergiev is on much finer narrative form, too, so that the return of the fate theme feels like a genuine dramatic climax. The coda is not quite convincing in its euphoria, though that may be intentional.

This is a disc for Nutcracker fans, who will forgive the rather odd coupling of the symphony. The symphony itself doesn’t stand up to comparisons, not least with Gergiev’s own very successful (if absurdly overpriced) 2002 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (review). It certainly doesn’t efface classics like Abbado and Jansons or, more recently, Mikhail Pletnev’s thrill ride (review).

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Rob Maynard

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