Two Beautiful New Albums for the Christmas Season from Jordi Savall and Vladimir Jurowski – The Messiah and the Nutcracker

Christmas Music

I’ve already written several blog posts on music for the Christmas season.

By the way, should you follow any other faith, please be aware that while I grew up in a Christian country, I’m agnostic and really see Christmas more as a beautiful family tradition, that nicely enough has led to the creation of some really beautiful music.

Both works I’ll be discussing here, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Händel’s Messiah, are not properly speaking Christmas music, but the Nutcracker is obviously strongly associated with the season, and at least part I of the Messiah deals directly with the birth of Jesus, so has a more direct connection.

The last couple of weeks saw the release of two new great recordings of these old warhorses. Jordi Savall has attacked the Messiah, and Vladimir Jurowski the Nutcracker. Let me start with Savall

Händel: The Messiah – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations (AliaVox 2019)

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

I’ve already written about 3 excellent versions of the Messiah. So is there really a need to add another one? Well I just bought it, so for me, the answer is yes.

Here’s why: I really like Jordi Savall, his early music and baroque recordings are always worth exploring, see for example his recording of the Bach and Vivaldi Magnificat. So I clearly had high expectations.

Nicely enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s compare this to my preferred version so far by Emmanuelle Haïm. Haïm really has an incomparable swing, which really makes baroque music so enjoyable.

Savall often takes slower tempi, but the entire recording has just so much brilliance, shine and sparkle, that I was immediately reminded of one of those giant Christmas trees that many cities put up (e.g. the Rockefeller one in NYC).

And this is music you really want to sparkle. The singers really shine as well. One of my favourites is “He shall feed his flock” from part II, with Rachel Redmond and Damien Guillon. Just beautiful.

The Nutcracker – Vladimir Jurowski – State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” (Pentatone 2019)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Vladimir Jurowski State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov" Pentatone 2019

Some say Russian music only should be played by Russian orchestras. My favourite version of the Nutcracker proves otherwise, but still there is something to be said for the combination.

Jurowski had already recorded a very beautiful Swan Lake, so I was curious to hear what he did with the Nutcracker, especially in an all live recording.

I wasn’t disappointed. In a way, this album is kind of the reversal of the Messiah situation, here my favourite Rattle version is the shiny Christmas tree, whereas the Jurowski version clearly has a lot of swing and verve. You are drawn in from the first minute of the overture, and if you can sit still during the enchanting Flower Waltz, you’re probably deaf.

The only minor issue I have with this album is the occasional imprecision in timing of the orchestra, these are due to the live recording here, I’m sure in a studio version these would have been edited out.

But this is nitpicking, overall this is a truly engaging and beautiful Nutcracker.

So in a nutshell, both are albums that are a must have for the season, and as a cherry on the cake, are actually quite well recorded on top of everything else.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find them here (Messiah) and here (Nutcracker), both on Qobuz.

The Nutcracker – Or Why I Sometimes Do Like Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker

In my previous post on Tchaikovsky’s symphony no. 5 I’ve stated that I don’t like Tchaikovsky very much. However, I must admit he really did some magical (and not in the Disney sense of the word) melodies in his ballets.

Western Christmas traditions now include regular performances of the Nutcracker. The story was originally a German fairy tale of a prince turned into a nutcracker, by E.T.A Hoffmann, later adapted by Alexandre Dumas. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere in 1892, and both the ballet and the “best-of” excerpt, the suites, are these days among the most famous of his works.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker  (EMI Classics 2010)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

My first version was the legendary one by André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra (also on EMI). That version is still very nice, so I didn’t look for a new recording for years (I basically listen to this work literally once or twice per year, usually some time in December).

However, two  years ago I heard about this relatively new (2010) recording by Rattle on the radio, and I checked it out and I really liked it. Beautiful orchestral colors by the great BPO, and most importantly all the energy that this music really needs (I’m anything but a dancer, but this music makes me want to get up from my sofa and move to it).

You’ll find some excerpts of the recording here, with a nice interview with Sir Simon Rattle and some BPO musicians:

 

Note that some people say that Russian music can only be played well by Russian conductors, and indeed Gergiev did a great job on his Decca recording with the Kirov orchestra from the 1990s.

But still, Rattle did such a fine version that I doubt I’ll ever buy another Nutcracker again (well, never say never).

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy the CD here, I haven’t found a decent lossless download source.