Monday, December 26, 2016

For Christmas Day (observed), by popular demand the gala Sunday Classics " 'Nutcracker' (the Whole Deal)" returns!


The March from the Opening Tableau of The Nutcracker (in the Nutcracker Suite, the first of the "Characteristic Dances" that follow the "Miniature Overture") is performed by the Maryinsky Theater Ballet, with the orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

by Ken

Herewith a change of plan since last night's "Hopeful holiday musical greeting from G. F. Handel -- and another from L. van Beethoven" (necessitated, as already foreseen, by the arduousness of reformatting-for-reuse, as originally intended, the 2011 post containing the whole of Part I of Messiah): Instead we have a (heavily updated) encore presentation of "Nutcracker (the Whole Deal)," not seen/heard since all the way back in 2014. By way of background, I explained in the preview to the 2013 revival of the Nutcracker extravaganza:
As far back as the mind recalls, Sunday Classics has celebrated the holiday musically at least in part with music from Tchaikovsky's ballets, and two years ago I went whole hog and offered a complete Nutcracker, basically double-covered throughout, and assembled from, well, a whole bunch of recordings. I brought it back last year, and now darned if it isn't here again.
In those previous renderings we had the luxury of a preview post, in which I eased into the main event by resorting to the little Nutcracker Suite that Tchaikovsky himself assembled, little imagining that it would become one of his most-performed works. And this still seems to me an excellent way to, er, get our musical toes wet. So we're going to hear once again two really splendid -- and interestingly different -- performances of the suite, which happen also to be, in their original formats, audio spectaculars, though again of quite different sorts. More about this after we've heard a bit of them. And what better bit to start with than the very first one, the "Miniature Overture" that sets the piece in motion?

TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a:
i. Miniature Overture

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

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


. . . that William Steinberg is taking a rather spritelier approach and Charles Dutoit a more buoyant, caressing one. Both the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Montreal Symphony play utterly delectably. And the conductors' approaches are beautifully supported by the recording teams.

The extensive series of recordings that Enoch Light produced for his Command label with the Pittsburgh Symphony and its longtime music director Steinberg, a musicians' musician -- done on 35mm film, engineered by Robert Fine, the outstanding engineer of most of the legendary Mercury Living Presence recordings -- are for me one of the great triumphs of orchestral recording. The complete suite we hear below is a dub I made back in the day from my Command LP, and as such it of coursee doesn't have track separations as our dubbed-from-CD Dutoit MP3 version. (For the benefit of those wishing to locate individual movements in the Steinberg verison, I've provided time cues below.)

Our other recording is from another famous long-running label-conductor-orchestra collaboration: the vivid, sonically spectacular series Decca undertook while Dutoit was music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Many of those recordings opened the ears of, and were understandably prized by, audiophiles. This one was produced by Andrew Cornall and engineered by a Decca legend, Jimmy Lock, whose long tenure with the company would make him the last link to the glory years of Decca's classical recording program, including projects like the first complete recording of Wagner's Ring cycle, which he participated in (and of which his painstaking, masterful 1997 remastering seems to me the best form in which those legendary 1958-65 recordings have been heard).

But enough jabber. Music, please, maestri!

TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a:
i. Miniature Overture
ii. Characteristic Dances
-- (a) March [at 3:01 in the trackless Steinberg version]
-- (b) Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy [at 5:30]
-- (c) Trepak (Russian Dance) [at 7:01]
-- (d) Coffee (Arabian Dance) [at 8:06]
-- (e) Tea (Chinese Dance) [at 11:22]
-- (f) Dance of the Reed Pipes [at 12:43]
iii. Waltz of the Flowers [at 14:59]

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

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


The basic plan is pretty simple. Once we get underway -- following some necessary assorted preliminaries -- we're going to work our way through Tchaikovsky's last ballet number by number, or sometimes in groupings of numbers, all set in context by a plot synopsis filched from Wikipedia. I went back and forth a lot about this plot-synopsis business, because when I listen to music written for the dance, not being a dance person to begin with, I really don't pay much attention to plots, or even programs. 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, to the extent that there is any plot; by Act II it doesn't seem to be trying very hard. As for the music itself (once we get going!), we're going to hear chunks of it -- solely at my discretion -- not once but twice, or even, in some select cases, thrice (confession: this happens only in instances where I discovered we already had the additional audio files on file, as it were, so why not toss them in?). I hope that the experience of those two quite differently terrific performances of the Nutcracker Suite we heard will amply justify the idea of multiple hearings; it's where we begin to discover the real expressive range of great music.

Before we get to some housekeeping notes about our Nutcracker traversal, let me just throw out two points :

(1) Tchaikovsky really didn't want to write this damned thing. So no, it was about as far from a "labor of love" as you can get. Embarrassed is pretty much how the composer felt about it. If you have some familiarity with his three ballets, you could be forgiven for thinking that Nutcracker was the first of them, which laid the groundwork for the composer's evolution into the deeper and darker Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. In fact, though, it was the last of them, and quite a late work.

Once you properly tune your ears, though, I think you'll hear the full bloom of Tchaikovsky's genius and experience in the concision and intricate detailing, not to mention the easy vast range of his imaginative resourcing. Beyond the mind-boggling memorability of the level of musical inspiration, what makes this music so endlessly durable, I think, is precisely the incredibly concentrated brilliance and emotional resonance of its detailing. I really don't think there's anything like it in the musical literature.

(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 Tchaikovksy, the part he cared about. How anyone ever thought that these two works belonged on the same bill completely escapes me. Yolanta is a fascinating and beautiful piece, but as difficult to bring off as The Nutcracker is all but surefire.

One of my many regrets about the life of Sunday Classics is that we never got around to talking about Yolanta, because as with many difficult, fragile creations, its specialness holds special rewards. But just as it's an all but impossible work to perform convincingly, it's really hard to talk about beyond the obvious facts: that it deals with the desperate desire of a very powerful man -- a king, in fact, a man not accustomed to not being able to control his surroundings -- to shield a loved one, in this case his cherished daughter, Yolanta, 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, in particular a beloved child, from the one thing above all we humans can hardly have protection from: reality.

Hard to imagine a more suitable companion piece for The Nutcracker, wouldn't you say? But then, is this any odder than celebrating this much-loved but utterly made-up non-Christian holiday ("Made in America," in fact, by Washington Irving and, it appears, Clement Clarke Moore) with this utterly happiest of all musical confections created by one of history's less happy individuals?


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

Early in the history of this complete Nutcracker I scribbled a bunch of notes about the components and how they fit together and how they don't, or don't quite, but once again I'm going to mostly let that drop. Let me just say that the breakdown of the piece into our little "work groups" is entirely my own, as is the decision (as noted) whether to present individual numbers within groups separately or, er, combinedly. I mean, could I really separate Nos. 8 and 9? After all, the unrelenting buildup of the "Scene in the Pine Forest" is my favorite section of the ballet -- wow! And again, it's entirely my call as to which numbers we're doubling up on. Assuming you've listened to the wonderful Steinberg and Dutoit performances of the "Miniature Overture" as part of the suite, you may not be surprised that I've not only reprised them here but dipped into those performances for the "Waltz of the Flowers."

Okay, that about does it. Let's get started. (Did I hear someone say, "Finally"?)

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker, Op. 71

Miniature Overture (three performances)

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

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

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


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.

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
(three 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

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

[I realize that these performances start in different places, and have put this near the top of my "To Be Fixed (Someday) list. Sigh.]


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 (three performances)

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

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

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 10-12, 1957

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

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn, cond. EMI, recorded Jan.-Feb. 1986

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



Hey, for a mere $5 you can download this lovely Nutcracker by the always-musical Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony -- and get a bonus Swan Lake Suite in the bargain!

And if I could have only one Nutcracker? (Perish the thought!) I think it would be the still-ravishing Dorati-London Symphony version from which we heard Nos. 4 and 5. (At full price it's pretty pricey, but you should find abundant used-and-new offerings on Along with maybe André Previn's first recording, also with the LSO, now available in EMI's moderately priced "Ballet Edition." (Tempting as the earlier CD box of Previn's glorious LSO recordings of all three Tchaikovsky ballets may be, it contains an earlier and inferior transfer of the Nutcracker.)


The very same Decca CD that contains Charles Dutoit's splendid Montreal recording of the Nutcracker Suite contains a quite splendid performance of the Capriccio, another piece that represents Tchaikovsky in his unusual highest spirits. So I thought I'd throw it in here.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Capriccio italien, Op. 45

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

NOTE: Since the formatting exigencies I wrote about regarding reappropriation of our old blogfiles necessitated reconstituting each of the audio files, I took the opportunity -- in addition to pretty much totally revamping the introductory material -- to touch up a number of things in the older version(s) of this post, including finally incorporating the promised-but-never-previously-delivered second recording of the "Pas de deux," the Previn/RPO one.)

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At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, dude, YOU are the man! TY.


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