Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, complete (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. Ondine ODE 1180-2D (2-disc set).

Perhaps it's just me, but it seems as though every other disc I review anymore features Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra performing some Russian work or another. He pops up on DG recordings, on Virgin Classics, PentaTone, Philips, Newton Classics, and now on Ondine. The guy's everywhere. Either a lot of people like him, or he works cheap.

As I'm sure you know, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) adapted his two-act ballet The Nutcracker from E.T.A. Hoffman's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and premiered it in 1892. He didn't like it, though. Indeed, friends said he hated it, especially compared to his previous ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. It's ironic, then, that in our own time The Nutcracker has become possibly Tchaikovsky's most-popular, nay most-beloved, work and maybe the most-popular ballet of any kind ever written. Certainly, it's got a little something in it to make everybody happy.

So, is there anything about this new recording from Pletnev that should make us forget some of the best recordings of the past, like those from Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Dorati and the LSO (Mercury), Andre Previn and the LSO (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy and Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Charles Dutoit the Montreal Symphony (Decca), Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (Philips), or Charles Mackerras and the LSO (Telarc)? Well, not really.

Things start out well enough with a vigorous yet unhurried Overture, followed by Pletnev's fairly tranquil handling of the Christmas ornaments scene. However, as he will do throughout the reading, he seems to favor either very quick or very slow tempos, without a lot of gradation in between; it achieves an outward appearance of excitement but ultimately seems a little artificial.

The familiar march that comes next also adheres to this quick-slow pattern, Pletnev beginning it in a relaxed, stately fashion, and then hurrying the middle section so much it appears as though everyone is in a race. After that, he settles into a relatively rigid, static pace.

And so it goes. Certainly, the orchestra play as precisely as ever and observe Pletnev's every direction to the letter, yet they often sound slightly thin, too, lacking a degree of lower-midrange weight. Anyway, I didn't find as much beauty, mystery, drama, passion, or sheer magic in Pletnev's interpretation as I did with any of the conductors cited above. Pletnev seems content to play the notes and mind the score, only launching himself into the music on occasion, and then, as I say, doing so somewhat frenetically.

The first act ends with the "Waltz of the Snowflakes," which Pletnev handles rather perfunctorily, devoid of much of the grace and lilt it demands. Like most of the rest of his rendition, it lacks much energy or imagination. Perhaps it just lacks much love, I don't know.

Tchaikovsky saved his best and most-memorable material for Act Two, which occupies the second disc. Here, the composer tends to forget about the story for a while and just entertain us with a series of delightful melodies. Because of the nature of the music, Pletnev can hardly lose. So things do pick up in the second half, although one might still find greater delight in Dorati or Previn, my favorites. By comparison, Pletnev often seems either to drag or push too hard.

Ondine recorded The Nutcracker at Mosfilm Recording Studios, Moscow, in March of 2011, and the results make for one of the better-sounding recordings of the Russian National Orchestra I've heard. The strings are clear and generally smooth, with only occasional moments of bright edginess. The midrange shows good clarity, maybe aided by the moderately close-up miking. There is not much stage depth involved, though, the orchestra sounding rather flat most of the time. No matter; making up for it are a crisp transient impact, especially noticeable on plucked strings and percussion, and a wide dynamic range with a pleasantly extended treble and bass response.

While I suppose purists will always insist upon having the complete ballet, and I don't blame them, I can't help thinking that The Nutcracker would also work well on disc in a slightly truncated version. The ballet often lasts about 90-100 minutes, yet edited to 75 minutes of the best tunes, it would fit neatly onto a single CD without sacrificing much. Maybe somebody will give it a thought someday. It certainly would have benefited Pletnev.

Finally, the two Ondine discs provide only 93 minutes of music, when there is a total capacity for close to an hour more content. It would have been nice to have gotten a coupling, no matter how brief, from Ondine.


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