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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (1891-1892, arr. for solo piano by Stewart Goodyear)
Stewart Goodyear (Steinway D)
rec. 25-27 February 2015, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included

I rarely pass up the opportunity to review a new recording of The Nutcracker, so I downloaded this one as soon as I was alerted to its existence. I’m not sure how this album, released in 2015, escaped my watchful eye, but then a belated review is better than none at all. Unusually for Steinway this is a hybrid SACD recorded by Sono Luminus at their studios in Boyce, Virginia. That was an enticement in itself, as SL’s America Again, featuring pianist Lara Downes, was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2016. The programme is well chosen and the playing is splendid, but as I pointed out at the time it’s the engineering that deserves special praise.

The Toronto-born composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear admits to a long-term love affair with The Nutcracker. He transcribed the March, before deciding to tackle the complete ballet. Others have restricted themselves to the suite, among them the composer Anton Arensky and the pianist Nicolas Economou. In 1983 the latter recorded his two-piano arrangement with Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon). Then there’s conductor-pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s reduction for piano solo, which dates from 1978. I had the pleasure of hearing Alexandra Dariescu play a selection from that as part of her recent all-Tchaikovsky recording for Signum.

From the well-turned Overture it’s clear that Goodyear’s Nutcracker is not only virtuosic, it’s also highly individual. One could argue, for example, that The Christmas Tree is over-decorated; the effect is not unpleasant, but the result is more Goodyear than Tchaikovsky. That said, the crisply articulated March is splendid, as is the Galop and Dance of the Parents. But despite Goodyear’s penchant for embellishment I can’t fault his pianism, which is assured and propulsive throughout. He also brings a weight to the music that’s lacking in the light, rather ‘pretty’ Argerich/Economou recording.

The Grandfather Dance is another of those sections where one is inclined to admire the musician rather than the music. It’s a niggle rather than a no-no, and it doesn’t really detract from the performance as a whole. Goodyear certainly has a feel for overall pace and dramatic thrust; he’s particularly adept at building tension, and he gives the score just enough ballast to suggest orchestral weight and amplitude. There’s an element of fantasy too, especially at the start of Clara and the Nutcracker, and that’s very welcome. Perhaps even more remarkable is the sheer consistency and coherence of this arrangement, which is generally free of flat-spots.

As a player he’s sensitive to shape and style, avoiding the self-indulgent swooning that mars Argerich and Economou’s otherwise entertaining performance. After a rousing battle Goodyear leads us into a truly wondrous account of the Transformation Scene and The Pine Forest in Winter. Indeed, for the very first time in this recording I was transported to the theatre, now firmly under the spell of this charming tale. It’s epiphanies like this that make one forget earlier caveats and criticisms; not only that, one is reminded of what an Olympian task this is, and how this pianist is able to connect with the score at these vital points.

Goodyear’s fondness for floridity may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works a treat in the lovely Waltz of the Snowflakes. At times this arrangement can seem a little too declamatory, but who could quibble with the seamless line of The Magic Castle, which is so atmospherically evoked? Even more impressive is the way that Goodyear segues so easily between sections, the Divertissement slipping in almost unnoticed. His flair for Tchaikovsky’s rhythms is undeniable, the distinctive sonorities and character of the showpieces a special delight. Indeed, the Arabian Dance is simply spell-binding. And what about the spirited Trepak and Polchinelle? Worth encores on their own.

One of two things is happening here: either Goodyear – the pianist and the arranger – is improving as the piece progresses, or I’m just getting to like the cut of his gybe. Actually, it’s probably a bit of both. That sense of involvement is helped in no small measure by the astonishing fidelity and focus of this fine recording, produced by Dan Merceruio and engineered by Daniel Shores. The Waltz of the Flowers is elegantly done – Goodyear’s trills and flourishes entirely apt in this context – and, bizarre as it may seem, his rhythmic verve suddenly made me want to hear him play Joplin.

What I miss in the Economou arrangement is a sense of excitement, of inexorable build ups, and that’s precisely what Goodyear delivers in his thrilling – and thoroughly orchestral – Intrada. As if that weren’t enough, he artfully mimics the silvery tinkle of the celesta in The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Goodyear brings the dream to an end with playing that had me in goose-bumps all over. This is another of those transfiguring moments, as much a soaring triumph for the pianist-arranger as it is for the composer himself.

Goodyear is no stranger to Olympus, having already recorded all 32 Beethoven sonatas for Marquis. For Steinway he’s tackled the Grieg Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s First (STNS 30035), plus Rachmaninov’s Second and Third (STNS 30047). And going back twenty years there’s some Gershwin with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops (Telarc 80445). He’s certainly a pianist to watch, and I’d love it if he and Steinway/Sono Luminus could record some Joplin and/or Gershwin. Incidentally, the SACD, derived from the 24/192 master recordings, sounds every bit as good as this download. As for the notes, they read more like a promotional brochure than a bona-fide booklet. For once, though, that hardly seems to matter.

Stewart Goodyear is a prodigious talent and, despite minor caveats, his Nutcracker arrangement must be counted a resounding success; factor in superior sonics and this becomes a very desirable issue indeed.

Dan Morgan


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