Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings
London Symphony Orchestra (Nutcracker), Philharmonia Hungarica (Serenade)/Antal Dorati
rec. 11-13 July 1962, Watford Town Hall, UK (Nutcracker), 5 June 1958, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria (Serenade)
MERCURY 432 750-2 [2 CDs: 111]
I can’t speak for them, of course, but I imagine one of the things that motivates Presto Classical in their production of their series of Presto CDs is the ability to return to the physical catalogue some recordings that have been critical in a work’s recorded history. If that’s true, then they’ve succeeded triumphantly here, because there can be few recordings that have been so important in the public’s perception of a piece of music as Antal Dorati’s first complete recording of The Nutcracker, made in London in 1962.
Dorati’s interpretation of the work is, of course, hugely important, but the Mercury Living Presence recording team that captured it was equally important in making the wider public fall in love anew with a score that is now central to the canon of well-loved classical music. The sound is terrific, fresh as a daisy and crisp as a morning frost. It’s close to the ear and completely clear, as well as expertly balanced; or at least, it is to my taste. The important individual moments are rather prominently highlighted, such as the triangle in the overture, or the harp in the Grand Pas de Deux, which not everyone will love, but it brings the textures alive and it made me hear right inside the music. There’s a little hiss, but that’s hardly surprising in a recording of this age, and they get so much else right. You can really hear the stereo-spacing of the upwardly cascading strings at the end of the March, for example, and the violas that introduce Drosselmeyer are much more light-hearted than creepy. The mischief that the children unleash when the nutcracker is broken falls a little short of mayhem, but it’s still full of energy, and the snarling winds in the battle scene sound gorgeously crisp. The engineers have also done a good job of placing the chorus (definitely adults!) for the Waltz of the Snowflakes, balancing them just right with the orchestra, and the orchestral climax of the Pas de Deux sounds great, if ever so slightly abrasive.
Dorati’s interpretation is so successful because it’s fresh and full of wonder. The bouncy joy of the overture sounds like children unwrapping a present, and the opening scene-setting of the Silberhaus household has bustle and charm that suggests children being themselves rather than mediated through adults. His speeds for the Divertissement are a little eccentric - unusually rapid for the Arabian and Chinese Dances, then a Dance of the Clowns that begins very slowly and turns into a helterskelter - but there’s nothing that made me turn away, and the Waltz of the Flowers has a lovely swing, though I can’t warm to the way Dorati clips the descending phrases, robbing them of their opulence.
My only criticism is with the key moment where the Christmas tree enlarges, which is too fast and rather lacking in magic. The same is true for his entry into the Pine Forest just afterwards. Dorati seems too keen to get on with things and start Act 2, but that act is great when it comes, and there’s a fabulous swing to the Final Waltz.
The playing is top notch, too. The orchestra never take themselves too seriously so that the trumpets in the March sound positively self-effacing and the dance of the adults at the Christmas party has just the right level of swagger to make it sound tongue-in-cheek. Each section in the Divertissement sounds fresh and clean (what fantastic winds in the Chinese Dance!) and the harp and celesta add a magical twinkle long before the Sugar Plum Fairy arrives.
This won’t be a first choice for many - for me that’s still Gergiev’s first recording for the Kirov on Philips - but it has a huge amount going for it, and it’s a crucial part of the work’s history on disc so, even with the reservations I’ve mentioned, it’s still hugely recommendable for those who love this work.
I doubt you’ll be as keen on the filler, though, a completely charmless performance of the Serenade for Strings that’s onto a downer right from the off with an absolutely dreadful opening where Dorati sounds like he’s conducting it with a scythe, forcing each chord to sound separately from the one that precedes it, breaking up all the sense of line and of continuity. Things improve a little when the main Allegro begins, but it still sounds heavy-handed and forced. The waltz lumbers with a heavy tread and the third movement is a long way from being elegiac. The finale’s dance isn’t bad, but when the music of the opening returns so do all the same problems. The recorded sound is still good, showing all of the virtues of The Nutcracker, despite it being a different orchestra in a different time and place with, presumably, different engineers. Never mind that, though: this performance is for the bin. Stick instead with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with whom you won’t go wrong.
It’s for The Nutcracker that you’ll want this disc, and one definite advantage is the splendid booklet which is a delightfully nostalgic reproduction of the original LP sleeves which were also, presumably, reproduced for the CD booklet when it was first produced in 1991. The essays themselves are unusually good, as is the ballet’s plot synopsis which contains track cues, and there are even a few words about the process of recording itself, which are a must for recording geeks (like me!).