Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker (complete ballet), op. 71 (1892) [89:46]
Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 (1875) [35:37]
Nodar Gabunia (piano)
Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra/Djansug Kakhidze
rec. Tbilisi, Georgia, 1996
CUGATE CLASSICS CGC034-2 [2 CDs: 125:37]
Between 1993 and 2002 Djansug Kakhidze and his Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra are said to have recorded no less than 150 albums. I suspect, nevertheless, that a series of double CD sets under the umbrella title Djansug Kakhidze: the legacy, released over the last couple of years, may be the first time that many MusicWeb readers will have encountered them.
Volumes 1 - 5 of that series offered the conductor's interpretations of such standard fare as Tchaikovsky's fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies, Stravinsky's ballets The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and other familiar works by Holst, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. Only in the last of those volumes (review) did we hear any music from composers born in the 20th century when the rarely-encountered third symphonies of both the Armenian Avet Terterian and the Georgian Giya Kancheli were included.
That fifth volume was, as far as I can see, the only one to have been reviewed on this website and, although my colleague Nick Barnard was relatively enthusiastic about the Terterian and Kancheli performances, he found the companion Strauss pieces to be neither remarkable nor distinctive in a very competitive field. The works on this newly released volume 6 are also much recorded, of course, but on this occasion Kakhidze's way with at least one of these familiar Tchaikovsky scores is certainly very well worth hearing indeed.
What's presented here is, in fact, one of the finest accounts of The Nutcracker that I've heard for some time. Before considering the performance itself, it's worth noting that the sound quality on these discs is remarkably good. The accompanying documentation merely mentions that the recording was made in Tbilisi. In his review cited above, however, Nick credits those volume 5 1997 tracks to the Tbilisi Center for Music & Culture (renamed the Djansug Kakhidze Tbilisi Center for Music and Culture in 2002). That venue's website rather endearingly informs readers that "the common opinion of specialists from the different countries is that after the reconstruction the concert halls of the center fit the modern world standards and our country has to be proud of it" and Nick certainly rated the orchestral sound recorded there as "good". Even though the glittering, rich yet highly realistic sound on these Nutcracker discs is significantly more than merely good, it's probably a reasonable assumption that the 1996 recording was also made at the TCMC.
Kakhidze was, it seems, something of a Tchaikovsky specialist. Indeed, according to the gushing booklet notes, no less a figure than "the famous Mravinsky adored him for his interpretations of... [the] symphonies". Although precise details are hard to come by, there are also some indications that he may have been a ballet conductor of some experience, for he worked at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre from 1962 until 1971 before returning as its artistic director and chief conductor from 1982 until his death. Moreover, in 1978 he made the first complete recording of Khachaturian's ballet Gayaneh with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra - which suggests that someone in authority in the tightly regulated USSR recording industry must have thought that he had some considerable talent when it came to such repertoire.
Having now listened to this performance of The Nutcracker several times over the course of a week, I can say that I have enjoyed it more than any other I’ve encountered for quite some time. Kakhidze’s is, in fact, a quite exceptional performance. Finely articulated and highly characterful orchestral playing is propelled by wisely chosen tempi - all of which, by the way, are entirely suitable for dancing. As well as demonstrating expert control over dynamics, Kakhidze was also a master of orchestral colour and balance so that even the finest details of Tchaikovsky's most delicate scoring can be clearly appreciated. The Tbilisi orchestra - founded by the conductor only four years before this recording was made - was clearly already performing at a very high standard. The strings play with both weight and rich depth, as can be heard at the opening of the Act 2 # 14 Pas de deux for the prince and the sugar plum fairy; the brass lends powerful, sonorous support while entirely eschewing the old characteristic raucousness that still infected many post-Soviet orchestras in the 1990s; and the winds, meanwhile, make the most of every opportunity to demonstrate immense character, as in passages when they take the place of the choir in the Act 1 # 9 Waltz of the Snowflakes.
Pressed to find any sort of defect in this performance, I'm forced to clutch at straws. Anyone familiar with danced Nutcrackers might miss a few of the familiar stage effects, for both the midnight chimes of the Stahlbaum family clock and the subsequent rifle and artillery shots during the dream battle are missing. A more significant omission is, though, that of the children's choir in The waltz of the Snowflakes. Their contribution isn't, after all, merely an effect on stage - the choir actually remains offstage and unseen - but an integral part of Tchaikovsky's musical score. One might speculate that the singers were left out simply because not enough of sufficient skill were available - a hypothesis possibly supported by the fact that four years after making this recording Kakhidze decided to form Georgia's first professional boys' choir.
As already indicated, there is virtually nothing that can be considered idiosyncratic or out of place in the performance. The only moments that raised an eyebrow even slightly were an unusual slowing down of the tempo in parts of Act 2 # 12f Mother Gigogne - perhaps, as is sometimes the way with these things, a purely local theatrical tradition? - and a couple of instances in the Act 2 # 14 Pas de deux where the orchestration seems a little odd. Thus, something sounding like an over-emphatic cymbal creates an effect reminiscent of a sudden strong gust of wind at 3:35, while at 7:50 an oddly prolonged final note of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy sounds, ironically enough, very slightly sour. Let me stress, though, that these really are such minor points that they don't detract in any way from the performance's overall success.
Unfortunately, the performance of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto that fills out the set's second disc is not on the same very high level. It gets off to an unfortunate start as the familiar, lushly Romantic opening melody from the orchestra is overwhelmed by the prominence accorded to soloist Nodar Gabunia’s piano. That poorly engineered balance is rectified relatively quickly, as if someone in the control room has twiddled a couple of knobs, but even that fails to add much distinction to what follows - an essentially workmanlike performance that doesn't rise much above the level of good-but-nothing-special. If you already own one of the many excellent existing accounts of the concerto - see here for my colleagues' personal recommendations - you have no need to consider replacing it with this one.
This two-disc set is packaged in an outer cardboard sleeve that holds both the plastic jewel case and a separate booklet. The booklet notes do, however, rather let the side down. Sometimes rather weirdly translated hagiographic essays by the conductor's son and an artistic/business collaborator leave no space for any information about the music or even the Nutcracker story. Another omission that many will find annoying is the failure to detail the individual elements of some of the ballet's numbers: # 12, for instance, is listed simply as Divertissement, which is true as far as it goes but entirely fails to explain that within its 12 minutes span you'll find six separate subsidiary episodes for dancers portraying chocolate, coffee and tea, Russian peasants and the rest. While I accept that the missing details may be easily found elsewhere, that really isn't the point.
In the grand scheme of themes, though, the missed opportunities in presentation are minor flaws. The performance is the main thing and, while this new release now becomes no less than the 18th complete performance of The nutcracker on CD in my collection, for the time being at least it will be the one that I will be playing for choice.