Site review by ramesh October 7, 2007
|This is a fine 'easy listening' version of this greatest of romantic ballets, presented complete. The conducting emphasises the lyrical aspects of the work, and underplays the theatrical and symphonic aspects of the score as exemplified by the recordings of Dorati [ three times ], Gergiev and Mravinsky [ excerpts only ].
The 'Nutcracker' is represented by other recordings on SACD. This 2006 PentaTone recording was made in Moscow, where Polyhymnia have a recording branch, and is presented in 5.0 MC, as well as the customary stereo mixdown. The complete version by Antal Dorati dates from 1962, and is the second of his three recordings. This is presented in 3 and 2 channel stereo. Additionally, the standard suite is also available from PentaTone in a Quad/ stereo recording conducted in the 1970s by Ozawa, and by a similar vintage Bernstein on Sony, which was originally recorded in 4 channel.
Those who have attended live ballet performances of any of Tchaikovsky's three great ballets may have noticed tempo fluctuations in the music, which are due to the presentation of this work as primarily a dance experience for the audience. Apart from the virtuosic dances in the Act 2 Divertissement, the dance performance tempos tend to broader than the audio-only 'symphonic' renditions of the score.
Vedernikov's version has tempos and an approach which one associates more with dance accompaniments to this score. The SACDs of Dorati's performance document the quickest complete Nutcracker which I've come across. Vedernikov's performance is over ten minutes longer than Dorati's, and nearly several minutes quicker than Gergiev's. It is the first half of the first act which most starkly differentiates Dorati's performance from Vedernikov. Dorati is urgent, almost to a fault, for he presses on for this entire act, glossing over some of the ebb and flow in the music [ this would be superbly accommodated in his 1970's Concertgebouw recording ]. In several sections of Act 1 Vedernikov seems to present ebb without leavening it with flow. The 'Grandfather dance' here is the low point of Vedernikov's version : if one wants to be charitable, one can say that the conductor is being too literal in observing a Grandfather slowed by osteoarthritis.
After here, the conducting shakes off the cobwebs and gains momentum, with the final three numbers of the Act building up the requisite climaxes. The 'Waltz of the Snowflakes', which is the finale to Act 1, is performed with the children's chorus stipulated in the score. Dorati rather bizarrely elects to have a women's chorus here, mitigating the childhood fantasy elements.
Act 2, which is less symphonically conceived prior to the tenth number [the Pas de deux ], fares much better in terms of sprightliness. Nevertheless, the elemental intensity of the 'Pas de deux' which are the highlights of both Mravinsky's idiosyncratic 'suite' and the complete Gergiev performance is absent from the Vedernikov. This is a typical feature of balletic performances where the music is usually subordinate to the stage as the tempi have to accommodate the choreography, whereas there is an inherent tendency for the symphonic conductor to higlight climaxes.
One aspect of the recording which puzzles me is the relative lack of power in the strings. I have heard this Bolshoi orchestra once in their customary Moscow hall, from the rear stalls. It is a full sized orchestra with no lack of power in any department, but as recorded, the strings have less presence than the LSO from 1962 in the Dorati SACDs, and the Maryinsky/ Kirov strings in the Gergiev performance. Nevertheless, the quality DSD recording really makes one aware of almost everything in the score. Woodwind detail which is often lost in more string-dominated performances is audible at modest playback levels.
For audiophiles who want to show off their systems, there is no better track to play than the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy', with its celesta. This is simply the best celesta recording I've heard, harmonically pure and lustrous, without the grating edge of low rate PCM digital. The Gergiev CD mentioned is one of the best Philips recordings from the digital era, recorded in Germany with custom valve equipment. On CD it has always sounded euphonic, without the shrill hallmarks of digital. The PentaTone recording is even better.
I had put off reviewing this release for a number of weeks, one reason being the remarkable disparity in sound between this and the Dorati SACD which was elusive to express pithily. The metaphor I've found which seems to encapsulate most of these differences is that the analogue Mercury recording on 35 mm film stock resembles the sonic presentation of a solid state amplifier from Naim or Krell. In contrast, the recording characteristics of the PentaTone discs sound more akin to triode valve sound.
The 1962 Mercury has a 'sharp', almost pinched sound, with the audiophile 'pace, rhythm and timing'. The leading edge of the notes are sonically silhouetted, but the timbre of the main note is relatively undernourished. This is not to say that the PentaTone recording lacks pace, rhythm or timing. However, the recording combined with the relaxed style of playing which the conductor elicits from his strings leads to a presentation where the leading and trailing edge of the notes are well rounded. The brass is very mellow, and the bass notes similarly mellow with a slight tendency to spread which one can hear in triode valve amplification. However, the recording has that sense of euphonic togetherness which is valued by devotees of valve power amps, which includes myself. [ Naturally, the possibility is that my hi-fi setup exaggerates these qualities, but this would not explain why the Dorati sounds so militantly solid state on the same system.]
It is this combination of a generous, valve-analogue presentation of the sound, coupled to a low voltage but personable performance which makes me summarise this SACD set as 'easy listening'. Anyone who wants taut, seat-of-the-pants excitement is advised to try the Dorati SACDs instead.
Review by drdanfee April 1, 2007 (16 of 18 found this review helpful)
|SACD:Bolshoi, Vedernikov: A Nutcracker For Many Reasons In All Our Seasons
In USA we have come to associate the Tchaikovsky ballet, the Nutcracker, with the holiday season in November-December-January. Whether you call this season Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Festival, or something else, if you live in a large USA city with a professional ballet company, chances are very high that they will be giving the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker.
Too bad dear old gay Tchaikovsky is not still alive to be an icon of the gay pride parades while he rides in a solid gold pink Cadillac down main streets in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Saint Louis, Miami, Dallas, to show off his royalty monies, maybe.
And at first glance, Russian pride of show seems to be the point here. We get a real, working professional Russian opera and ballet orchestra from the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow. Our conductor is the current Bolshoi music director (since 2001), the gifted and brilliant Alexander Vedernikov. And our engineers are the redoubtable multi-channel super audio team from Polyhymnia in the Netherlands who are doing about as much as anybody else ever has to bring us the best Russian orchestras and soloists now playing or singing before the public.
The bottom line here is nothing but sheer musical magic.
My previous fav sets of the Nutcracker have been the two outings led by Antal Dorati, one with the LSO on old Mercury Living Presence LPís, and the other with the Royal Concertgebouworkest which also came out in the vinyl era, I think. When CDís came along, both of these recordings were quickly transferred to the new format, and now although the CGBO reading lags behind, the LSO reading has also been transferred to super audio.
I can listen to quite a range of approaches in this music, since after all, it is a ballet and probably has had its tempos and textures adjusted in live performance, as many different times as different star soloists and ballet companies have danced it. That said, a recording is above all an auditory outing, like hearing the full ballet performed in a concert setting.
Marvelously, what the band and conductor give us here is a lovely combination of all the best traditions and approaches.
For one thing, since Vedernikovís claim to fame is that he leads real world opera and ballet, all over the world now (including Milanís La Scala), we can hear a reading grounded in the real world in a real music hall. The technical notes are not exact, but it seems as if the venue here is indeed the Bolshoi Theater. Its probable recreation in your own home theater five channel listening room will be subtle, but full, present, vivid, and vital. Bravo, Polyhymnia team.
Like the famed Antal Dorati, Vedernikov encompasses this ballet story as one great whole. Not a symphony, but symphonic in sweep, color, scope, and drama nonetheless. No solo passage or set piece is neglected, but each smaller section unfolds inside a coherent larger music view. One comes to the end of each Act, glowing and satisfied to have been hearing all that has just passed. One would guess that Vedernikov has led enough live Bolshoi Nutcrackerís to bring all the athletic grace and power of real dance to this reading, too. The tempos are amazingly rock steady, without becoming dogged. Their integration and flow keeps us moving right along as the balletís story unfolds. Inside his chosen tempos, Vedernikov encourages the band departments to characterize brilliantly, as if the Late Romantic era had indeed invented the palette that later splashed across our High Definition video screens in a zillion digitized colors.
Between hearing the two acts, I realized that two other conductors were coming to mind as points of reference for the lovely magic that Vedernikov and his Bolshoi players are capturing. One is the legendary figure of Evgeny Mravinsky. I donít think he ever got to record the Nutcracker commercially, but his Tchaikovsky is deservedly recognized. Mravinskyís recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies captured all the Slavic soul and sweetness, carried along on the floating, athletic, balletic grace that Vedernikov and company bring to bear in this set. My other conductor is still living. Anthony Pappano often leads performances which manage to capture his music whole, while not stinting on the many particulars. Pappano is also an experienced opera conductor, and so his readings always sing and breathe. Bravo, Vedernikov, for soul, singing, strength, and athletic grace.
None of this inspired leadership would be so lovely if the band were not equal to the challenge. No department of the Bolshoi orchestra fails or lacks. The woodwinds are scintillating. Woody lower reeds to root or medium reeds giving character. Platinum upper lights to give shine or ice. The strings carry the bulk of the musical work, never showing a second of boredom or over-familiarity or deadness of phrasing. We hear nary a hint of any of the old Soviet orchestra shortcomings. No thinness in the strings. No wobbles in the brass, not even the horns. No over-balancing by the woodwinds. One imagines this orchestra has played this ballet music so many times that any member could do it, asleep. But the Bolshoi is certainly not asleep here. Awake, involved, and seeming still to be in deep and fast love with music and with ballet and with Tchaikovsky.
To round out the second disc, you get an excerpt from Swan Lake, plus the polonaise from the opera Eugene Onegin. My idea? Get these wonderful performers to do the other two Tchaikovsky ballets as soon as possible. Then add in the complete symphonies, including Manfred.
These days we can so little afford to take any incarnation of love for music, for granted. If you already have a Nutcracker you dearly love, this set will keep it very good company. If you do not have a Nutcracker, this set will start you right off, at the top of the super audio recordings heap. Let your listening room be transmuted into the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow. You owe it to Tchaikovsky, and you owe it to yourself. Five stars, going on a zillion, with lights still shining across vast distances from bright Russian configurations who have long since died.
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