TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker
The physical presentation of this Oehms Classics release in a standard slim jewel case isn’t going to win any prizes. Sir Simon Rattle’s Christmas gift for 2010 came in a multiplicity of formats, one a limited edition hardback book running to 50-odd pages, while Valery Gergiev’s swift and punchy first recording was squeezed on to a deftly presented single disc by eliminating pauses between numbers. Perhaps design, economy and annotation matter less in these days of streaming. And sonically at least the German label has come up trumps. The unusually present, detailed sound adds greatly to the lustre of what is an old-fashioned studio recording with no audience noises to mask.
The variably transliterated Dmitri Kitaenko (or Dmitrij Kitajenko, as Oehms has it), the only Nutcracker conductor to have set down the ballet’s lesser-known companion piece, the opera Iolanta (Oehms, 10/15), alongside all eight [sic] Tchaikovsky symphonies, finds charm and breadth of utterance in everything he touches. That said, he has never been a speed merchant and his relaxed approach to The Nutcracker presents quite a contrast to the high-profile digital contenders mentioned above. Not necessarily a bad thing if you find Rattle overly precious and Gergiev merely brusque. Sample the famous March (track 3): my guess is you’ll know straight away if Kitaenko is too slow for you. His Snowflakes waltz a little stolidly too. While scarcely any meaningful story survives the ballet’s voyage from the mimed semi-reality of an idealised family Christmas to the land of eternal sweetmeats (and virtuoso dancing), Act 1 retains a certain dramatic impulse even in slow-mo. Yes, the solos lack the personality of Rattle’s Berliners and the sheer heft of Gergiev’s home team, in 1998 still known by its Soviet-era Kirov tag, but there’s much to be said for Kitaenko’s unforced naturalness and affection for the music.
Stravinsky planned the The Fairy’s Kiss as a conscious Tchaikovskian homage, so this coupling has a certain logic; nevertheless, it is Rattle rather than Kitaenko who points up the forward-looking, Petrushka-ish elements in the older ballet. But why not include The Fairy’s Kiss in its entirety? The Divertimento is relatively ubiquitous on disc and, again, some listeners will miss an edgier, more driven style of interpretation. Still, this reading is very beautiful in its way, with everything properly prepared and textures at once crystalline and sumptuous.