Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Classics: It's "The Nutcracker" -- the whole deal! (Again!)


Since we already saw the "Nutcracker Suite" sequence of Disney's Fantasia with Friday night's preview, I thought to kick off we'd just look at this little teaser from Helgi Tómasson's San Francisco Ballet staging.

by Ken

[To repeat, this is an "encore presentation" of last year's complete-Nutcracker post, which I thought came out pretty darned well. You probably think it's a huge labor-saver just running a post "rerun." Perhaps I thought so too, but it never works out that way.]

The plan is pretty simple. As promised in Friday night's preview, when we heard two quite differently terrific performances of Tchaikovksy's own Nutcracker Suite, today we're going to hear the complete ballet, and chunks of it -- solely at my discretion -- twice!

Pretty much the last thing I added to what you'll see in the click-through is the plot synopsis (filched from Wikipedia). I went back and forth a lot about this, because I really don't pay much attention to plots, or even programs, when I listen to music written for the dance. I'm not a dance person to begin with, and I guess my listening orientation is to allow the music to plug its own built-in "program" into my imagination. Still, in the end it seemed to me that this curious format (for want of a better word) we've got going here at Sunday Classics is actually an extremely good way to hook up the plot and the music.

I'll have some quick (I hope) notes about the specifics when we get to the click-through, so let me just throw out two points about The Nutcracker:

(1) Tchaikovsky really didn't want to write the damned thing. So no, it was about as far from a "labor of love" as you can get.

(2) It was written to share a double bill with one of the composer's less-performed operas, Yolanta, which is the part of the bill that really interested and moved him. It has, in fact, nothing (that I can see or hear) in common with its birth billmate, and it strikes me as an incredibly difficult piece to really bring to life, but as with many difficult, fragile creations, its specialness holds special rewards. It deals, first, with the desperate desire of a very powerful man -- a king, in fact -- to shield a loved one, in this case his only daughter, from pain, in her case the knowledge that she's blind. But in the larger sense it deals with the futility of trying to protect someone from something it's impossible to "protect" her from, like reality. Someday we should undoubtedly talk about Yolanta. (But it's difficult.)

The Land of Sweets: Konstantin Ivanov's original sketch for the set of Act II of the 1892 premiere of The Nutcracker


. . . and how they came together, and fit together (or don't quite), but I think I'm going to let that mostly drop. The breakdown of the piece into our little "work groups" is entirely my own, as is the decision whether to present individual numbers within groups separately or, um, combinedly. I mean, could I really separate Nos. 8 and 9? (The unrelenting buildup of the "Scene in the Pine Forest" is my favorite section of the piece. Wow!) So, finally, is the decision to double up on the sections I've doubled up on. One obvious doubling up occurs in the Miniature Overture and the "Waltz of the Flowers," where I've cheated and brought back the wonderful Steinberg and Dutoit performances from their recordings of the suite, which we heard Friday night. I guess you can assume that these sections are pretty darned special.

The plot synopsis, again, is from Wikipedia. You'll notice that by Act II there isn't a whole lot of plot.

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker, Op. 71

Miniature Overture (two performances)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. Command, recorded c1963

Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1985


Tableau 1: The Silberhaus Home
It is Christmas Eve at the house of Herr and Frau Silberhaus and their children. Family and friends have gathered in the parlor to decorate the beautiful Christmas tree in preparation for the night's festivities. Once the tree is finished, the younger children are sent for; among them are Clara, the Silberhaus' daughter, and her brother Fritz. The children stand in awe of the tree sparkling with candles and decorations. The festivities begin. A march is played.
No. 1. The Christmas Tree

No. 2. March

No. 3. Children's Galop and Arrival of the Guests

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. Telarc, recorded May 13-16, 1986

Presents are given out to the children. Suddenly, as the owl-topped clock strikes eight, a mysterious figure enters the room. It is Herr Drosselmeyer, a local councilman and Clara and Fritz's godfather. He is also a talented toymaker who has brought with him gifts for the children, including four lifelike dolls -- a Harlequin and Columbine, and a Vivandière and Soldier -- who dance to the delight of all. Herr Silberhaus has the precious dolls put away for safekeeping. Clara and Fritz are sad to see the dolls taken away, but Herr Drosselmeyer has yet another toy for them: a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a little man, used for cracking hazelnuts. The other children ignore it, but Clara immediately takes a liking to it. Fritz, however, purposely breaks the toy. Clara is heartbroken. Clara takes the wounded toy to her doll's bed, lulling it to sleep. The boys interrupt with their toy trumpets and horns. Herr and Frau Silberhaus announce it is time to finish off the evening with a traditional Grandfather dance. After the dance, the guests depart, and the children are sent off to bed.
No. 4. Scene and Arrival of Drosselmeyer with Presents

No. 5. Scene and Grandfather Dance

London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. Mercury, recorded July 11-13, 1962

During the night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her beloved nutcracker. As she reaches the little bed, the clock strikes midnight and she looks up to see her Godfather Drosselmeyer perched atop the clock in place of the owl. Suddenly, mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow to dizzying heights. The Nutcracker also grows to life-size. Clara finds herself in the midst of a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers and the mice, led by the Mouse King. The mice begin to eat the gingerbread soldiers. The Nutcracker appears to lead the gingerbread soldiers, who are joined by tin soldiers and dolls (who serve as doctors to carry away the wounded). As the Mouse King advances on the still-wounded Nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the Nutcracker to stab him.
No. 6. The Spell Begins: Clara and the Nutcracker

No. 7. Battle of the Nutcracker Against the Mouse King

Philharmonia Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded May 1985

Tableau 2: A Pine Forest
The mice retreat and the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through the moonlit night to a pine forest in which the snowflakes dance around them (the Waltz of the Snowflakes is the best known snow dance of many inspired by the "Grand ballet of the snowflakes" from Offenbach's Le voyage dans la lune, scene 15).
No. 8. Scene in the Pine Forest
No. 9. Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
(two performances)

Boys of the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir (in No. 9), Berlin Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, cond. Philips, recorded May 1986

Bolshoi Theater Children's Chorus (in No. 9), Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, cond. Melodiya, recorded 1960


Tableau 3: The Land of Sweets
Clara and the Prince travel in a nutshell boat pulled by dolphins to the beautiful Land of Sweets in Confiturembourg, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Prince's place until his return. The Prince recounts for the Sugar Plum Fairy how he had been saved by Clara from the Mouse King and had been transformed back into a Prince.
No. 10. The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
No. 11. Clara and the Prince

Philharmonia Orchestra, John Lanchbery, cond. EMI, recorded 1981

In honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, and tea from China all dance for their amusement; candy canes from Russia perform a Trepak; Danish marzipan shepherdesses perform on their flutes; Mother Gigogne has her Polichinelle children emerge from under her enormous skirt to dance.
No. 12. Character Dances (Divertissement)
(a) Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
(b) Coffee (Arabian Dance)
(c) Tea (Chinese Dance)
(d) Trepak (Russian Dance)
(e) Dance of the Reed Pipes
(f) Polichinelle (The Clown)

Kirov (Mariinsky Theater) Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, cond. Philips, recorded in Baden-Baden, August 1998

A string of beautiful flowers perform a waltz.
No. 13. Waltz of the Flowers (two performances)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. Command, recorded c1963

Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1985

To conclude the night, the Sugar-Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform a Pas de Deux.
No. 14. Pas de deux (two performances) [time cues offered for the trackless Ansermet clip, made from LP -- sorry about the surface noise at the start of the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy"]
(a) Intrada
(b) Variation I: Tarantella {Ansermet: at 5:29]
(c) Variation II: Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy [at 6:10]
(d) Coda [at 8:07]

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Decca, recorded October 1958

A final waltz is performed by all the sweets, after which Clara and the Prince are crowned rulers of the Land of Sweets forever and are shown the riches of their kingdom domed with an enormous beehive. There is no indication in the original ballet plot, however, that the two ever fall in love or marry.
No. 15. Closing Waltz and Grand Finale

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Decca, recorded October 1958



It's by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus, from whom we heard a pretty smart performance of the important Act II "Character Dances" (not that these are difficult pieces to make work). The original issue of this recording was the only Nutcracker I've encountered on a single CD, but then, I haven't been keeping up. In any event, you could do a lot worse.

And if I could have only one Nutcracker? (Perish the thought!) I think it would be the Dorati-London Symphony version from which we heard Nos. 4 and 5. Along with maybe André Previn's first recording, also with the LSO, of which EMI last year released a new CD mastering (in its moderately priced Ballet Edition) to replace the disappointing earlier one.

FURTHER THOUGHT: I've been listening to my digital dubs from LP (a pretty-good-sounding early London Records pressing) of the final numbers of the Ansermet Nutcracker, and I'm thinking that deserves to be thrown into this mix. (There's also a $6.99 downloadable version.) There was, by the way, one of those fancy 180-gram audiophile-LP editions, and if you can lay hands on that and you've got really good record-playing equipment, I'll bet it sounds really fine.

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