TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Dudamel)
’Tis the season to roast your Nutcrackers by the fire. A year on from my mammoth survey of available recordings (12/17), new recordings of Tchaikovsky’s seasonal confection are ready to tumble in, the first of which comes from Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Actually, it’s taken an ice age to arrive: this recording was made way back in 2013 in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, so why is it only being released now? The cynic in me suspects it’s to tie in with the release of Disney’s new film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, for which Dudamel – with the Philharmonia this time – has recorded the (original) soundtrack.
Dudamel’s track record with Tchaikovsky on disc is mixed. Edward Seckerson loved his ‘sinewy, uninhibited’ Fifth Symphony with the Simón Bolívar (4/09 – the finale is devastating), but Andrew Achenbach found his later disc of Shakespeare-inspired tone poems ‘worryingly superficial’ (6/11). So how does his Nutcracker fare? Well, the playing of the LAPO – and how welcome to see the players listed in the booklet – is fabulous, the strings as fine as spun sugar and the brass crisp in the Spanish Dance. The character dances are well drilled, the Arabian Dance seductively paced (much slower than my top picks last Yuletide, Valery Gergiev and Neeme Järvi). The percussion are prominent, especially the celesta – Orrin Howard’s lovely booklet note quotes Tchaikovsky’s letter to his publisher instructing him to keep quiet about his new discovery lest Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov should pinch it before the premiere!
The complete ballet comes in at 90 minutes, which is par for the course. But apart from a helter-skelter battle scene from Dudamel, there’s a feeling that everyone is on their best behaviour: the Waltz of the Flowers has a lovely sense of lilt without ever threatening to spiral out of control; the Christmas tree grows at an urgent pace, yet is devoid of sparkle; the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sing with purity in the Snowflakes but sound recessed and pale. This is a dutiful Nutcracker, but where is the magic?