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.

A Follow-Up on Grieg’s Piano Concerto – Andsnes Still Wins

Disques en lice

I’ve mentioned several times that Swiss radio has two great shows, one in German, one in French, that both have the same approach, select 5-6 versions of a classical work, get 2-3 experts and a  moderator in a radio studio, and have the experts compare these versions blindly. The German version is called Diskothek im Zwei, the French version is called Disques en lice.

I follow both regularly. I often don’t agree with the invited experts, but it is a really nice challenge to see if you listen to the same music without knowing who’s playing, you still like it (or maybe like it less if you’re not aware one of your heros is playing).

A similar concept exists with wine (my other passion), and unlike my wife who has a much better nose, I’m only average at blind tastings. Luckily, I usually do better with music.

Grieg’s piano concerto

I’ve already written about Grieg’s piano concerto previously in this post about Javier Perianes recent recording. There I mentioned that my all time favorite is the version with Leif-Ove Andsnes.

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes Maris Jansons Berliner Philharmoniker

I’m a big Andsnes fan boy, as also documented in my recent commentary about his Beethoven concertos here. So I was really hoping that Disques en lice would include his version, as I wanted to ensure that I still like the version when actually I don’t know it’s him. Luckily for me they did (link to the show here).

Let me brag a little here (sorry!), but I recognized his version blindly in all three movements, and am still as enthusiastic about it as before! I really don’t know how one could do this concerto any better than Andsnes and Jansons.

The competition included:

  • The very recent Vadym Kholodenko recording on Harmonia Mundi with the Norjan Radion Orkesteri. Well, overall I kind of liked the version but must agree with the experts that the orchestra just isn’t the same level than the others, so this got kicked out after the first round (3 stars)
  • Nikolai Lugansky with Kent Nagano and the DSO Berlin: well, ok, but nothing special. Also got voted out rather rapidly, fine by me (3 stars)

The three versions that made it to the final round (3rd movement) are Andsnes, and these two:

  • Nelson Freire, Rudolf Kempe, with the Munich Philharmonic. Interesting version, the still very young Freire has tons of energy here. Unfortunately I liked the orchestral playing quite a bit less (4 stars overall). Nevertheless, this version convinced one  of the three commenting experts

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Radu Lupu André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra Decca

  • Radu Lupu, André Previn, London Symphony. This version won for the two other experts. Well, I get what they like, Lupu is obviously doing an outstanding job, and the way they play the 2nd movement is out of this world! Unfortunately, overall this version is just a tad too slow for me, losing too much energy in the process especially in the first movement (still 4 stars though).

Therefore, Andsnes remains my hero for Grieg, and I reconfirm my 5 stars for this album!

The Perianes version from my last post was played at the beginning of the show unfortunately “hors concours”, I still like this recording a lot

And the Moog recording I commented about last time I’ve seen reviewed twice now. Gramophone really loved it, Classica in the latest issue only give it 3 star, in line with my rating.