Alexandra Dariescu: The Nutcracker and I
The original idea, from which this CD and its illustrated booklet is a spin-off, was a multi-sensory project bringing together piano, dance and animation designed by the rather alarmingly named Yeast Culture. In that form, the product has been praised as a pleasant and entertaining experience for children at a fraction of the price of an actual ballet production; and challenging received norms of presentation is always to be welcomed. However, whether Jessica Duchen’s text, spoken over the music at intervals by Lindsey Russell, makes for an equally satisfying experience is another matter.
As presented on stage, the programme has no narrator, and the storyline, entirely told through a cleverly designed live-action and animation combination à la Mary Poppins, more or less follows that of the ballet. One exception was the very opening, which creates a montage in which the animation of a young girl at the piano turns into Alexandra Dariescu, planting the idea that the Clara of The Nutcracker is in fact the pianist on the stage. This is far more effective than the (to me cringe-inducing) line in the CD version: ‘that little girl was me’. And where the animated story leaves Clara’s dream of becoming a pianist to concentrate on the dance and the magic of the ballet, Duchen’s story, presumably at the request of Dariescu, attempts to interweave the piano ambition into the Nutcracker story, which then turns into a series of piano-practice suggestions: broadly speaking, in order to become a pianist you need to work hard and be ready to travel. The latter, odd-seeming piece of advice sets up the various national dances, for instance allowing Clara to have ‘a strong cup’ of Arabian coffee, almost immediately followed by some Chinese tea.
I suppose such whimsy is a matter of taste. But where is the music in all this? It is in fact omnipresent, but be ready for a lot of volume fluctuation and a substantial amount of music lost because of the words spoken over it. The piano arrangements intersperse Mikhail Pletnev’s well-known Suite – already recorded by Dariescu on Signum (1/17) – with less familiar ones by the composer, Stephan Esipoff and Percy Grainger, as well as three by Gavin Sutherland, expressly commissioned. Dariescu explains in an interview that the selection and ordering serve to convey her Nutcracker. So she opens with Tchaikovsky’s own version of the opening number from Act 2. As an accompaniment to the clever opening animation, this less than top-drawer transcription (there is a finer one by Taneyev, made with the composer’s approval) could still work, but without the visuals it hardly seizes the attention. Further on, Dariescu’s playing is charming, shapely and precise, though inevitably not as breathtakingly fluent or imaginatively coloured as Pletnev’s own. Best of all, perhaps, is the ballet’s crown jewel Pas de deux, which is sweeping in its emotional breadth. Hearing the narrated story for this number, it is difficult not to imagine the flight episode of The Snowman, with Santa Claus replaced by a grand piano.
As a seasoned Blue Peter presenter, Lindsey Russell certainly knows her craft, and it would probably take a listener from the target age-group to assess her fairly; likewise Jessica Duchen’s text. For a narration more likely to appeal to adults as well as children, look for Claire Bloom’s reading of Janet Schulman’s adaptation of the original ETA Hoffmann story, interspersed with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s music. Or for a more recent adaptation, keeping the storyline and characters and most of the music, seek out Geoffrey Rush’s narration with Nicolette Fraillon and Orchestra Victoria (ABC Classics). These, just like the best Pixar movies, prove that it is possible to appeal to all ages. Despite the attractiveness of the basic idea, ‘The Nutcracker and I’ remains a quasi-audio-book which may well speak to the very young but alas probably not to the young at heart.