There don’t seem to be quite as many new instrumental albums for the holidays as usual, but there are a couple of really good ones. The first is on the Naxos label and features the English brass ensemble, Septura. The album’s title is Christmas with Septura, and it contains a generous 22 tracks. Septura has a rich and robust sound and is made up of seven musicians – 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. Notably no French horns. Much of the music is arranged from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but there
are some familiar carols as well – “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and “Silent Night” among them. The mix between slower, sonorous tunes and fleet, virtuoso ones seems ideal and the recorded sound is just right to give one detail with an abundance of warmth.
The second CD comes from the ATMA Classique label and features the Canadian chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie in a program called Simphonies des Noel. It is actually a re-release of Labadie’s first album for ATMA Classique. Les Violons du Roy is based in Quebec City and specializes in correctly informed performances of music from the Baroque Era.
The musicians give spirited dance-like readings of the two “Christmas Concertos” by Giuseppe Torelli and Arcangelo Corelli which relate more closely to the story of shepherds keeping watch than do other performances. Trraveling from Italy to France, Labadie leads idiomatic and appealing performances of Christmas music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, stopping by Germany to play some fine Nativity music by Fux. The recording is superb – sounding exactly as a small orchestra of strings with two recorders added should sound. The tuttis are exceptionally clear. It’s really good to have this delightful one back!
This time posting there are two new Blu-ray Nutcrackers under consideration. One will delight and the other will leave a bad taste in your mouth. The dubious and bad one first, a production of the Staatskapelle Berlin featuring its orchestra and corps de ballet conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Credit where it’s due, Barenboim leads a wonderful orchestral performance with outstanding woodwind playing and rich and sonorous strings. But as delightful as things are in the pit, they are quite different on stage. Choreographer Patrice Bart has decided, in trying to get closer to the original E. T. A. Hoffman story, to make the ballet a psychological coming of age drama married to a power control trip. The character of Herr Drosselmeyer (Oliver Matz) has been given a new prominence and the point that he is in charge like a puppet master is mercilessly
hammered home, especially in the finale where the characters shuffle off stage looking misplaced extras from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. To add salt to the wounds, the production is somewhat colorless and drab. Still there are a few high moments, including the incredible dancing of Nadja Saidakova and Vladimir Malakhov in the second act “Pas de Deux,” a sequence so stunning in artistry that it almost makes up for the rest. Audio and video quality are just fine. Perhaps you could rent it, just to see that wonderful “Pas de Deux.”
In 1954, George Balanchine and the New York City Opera were chief among the pioneering groups that made The Nutcracker a holiday favorite now danced by every company in the land during December. The film released this year by the C Major label is the 2011 production and it’s a beauty from beginning to end. The party in the first act is festive, the transformation scene, with its tree that grows from 12 to 40 feet, is magical, as is the rest of
the production up to the end which finds Marie and her prince transported to the stars in a reindeer pulled sleigh. The dancing is first rate throughout and the orchestra plays admirably well, led by maestra Clotilde Otranto, who chooses fairly brisk tempos throughout. These never seem rushed nor do they seem to pose any problems for the dancers. Overall this is a five star production with state of the arts video and audio reproduction. Not to be missed.
Disney has had great success of late producing new versions of familiar classics. First it was The Jungle Book, and now Pete’s Dragon. Both the original and this update mix live action with an animated dragon but in very different ways. In the original, the dragon (Elliott) was intentionally made to look like a cartoon character. The studio wanted to extend its success with Mary Poppins, which had mixed live action with animated sequences so successfully. In the current version, Elliott is , through the magic of CGA, made to look real. He’s a dragon with fur, instead of scales, and with his broken tooth and goofy grin, he’s like a big plush teddy bear.
The current movie is interesting in that it mixes in some L’Enfant Sauvage to the story. When Pete’s parents are killed while the family is on an outing in the remote woods, Elliott raises him for 6 yeas before he’s discovered by mankind. He was 5 when he went missing so apparently doesn’t have all that much trouble fitting back into society. The movie is a great little family film and says a lot of family and loyalty. It’s also a two-hankie film, but they’ll persevere, they’ll be tears of joy in the long run. That’s the magic of a movie like this, which carries on the Disney tradition of wholesome entertainment, something we certainly need as an antidote to this age of lies and corruption. The Blu-ray, seen on a 4K display, is breathtaking at times; there’s also a DVD in the package in case you haven’t upgraded formats lately, and an HD copy you can take with you. Highly recommended.
When I was in college, the most of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker that you heard was the famliar suite. Then there was a London recording conducted by Anatole Fistoulari that had the familiar suite plus a second suite. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet revived the entire ballet as a Christmas holiday treat and the complete recordings by Ernest Ansermet and Artur Rodzinski came out, in stereo no less. What a revelation it was to find so much superlative music that had been passed over in constructing the suites. Now there are dozens of recordings of the complete ballet and new recordings of the suite are few and far between. This year there’s a new one of the complete ballet from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and in covering that I discovered a fine one on one disc that I’d previously missed.
The Gergiev is one of the works of a curious pairing coupling the ballet with the composer’s Symphony No. 4. Gergiev gives his usual intense reading of each, which is particularly successful in the symphony. This is one of the greatest 4ths in the catalog now, not only surpassing the conductor’s own cavernous effort with the Vienna Philharmonic, but 95 percent of the other recordings as well. The Nutcracker fares nearly as well. Recordings by Ansermet, Rodzinski, and Roshdestvensky still come out on top, but this one is not far behind. The sound is lush and sonorous. I especially love the reedy clarinets and sumptuous cello section. Tempos are a little slower than usual at times, more akin to what is usually danced than what is usually recorded. But these are never too slow or ponderous, since Gergiev has such a handle on the music’s inner rhythms.
The two years older recording (2014) I discovered is by Neeme Jarvi and the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredibly enough, it is contained on one CD with a running time of a bit over 84 minutes. Tempos are brisk but one never has the feeling they were juiced up just to make single disc possible. Jarvi is a touch more lyrical with melodies than Gergiev and the orchestral timbres are just a tad leaner…and sweeter. In a nutshell, Gergiev seeks the drama in the score, Jarvi the lyricism. If you check out the sale and used items on Amazon.com you can no doubt afford both, which isn’t such a bad idea given the popularity of the composition. Both recordings are available as downloads from Naxos or as exceptionally good sounding SACD discs.
I mentioned Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances a few days ago in covering the new recording of the Slavonic Rhapsodies on Pentatone SACD. Then along comes a new release of the dances on a fine Decca CD with Jiri Belohlavek leading the Czech Pilharmonic Orchestra. The same conductor and orchestra released a highly regarded set of Dvorak’s symphonies and
not too long long ago, so one is primed to find this current release appealing. And it surely is, the Czech Philharmonic players have this music in their DNA,as does Belohlavek. The recording is big and sumptuous with quite a bit of reverb. It produces a grand sound, but not an exceptionally transparent one. If you like your Dvorak big, you’ll go for it.
Covering familiar fair such as this causes reviewers to go scrambling through other recordings and in this case both those conducted by Rafael Kubelik and George Szell are still strong, but a recent discovery of a BIS recording by Leif Segerstam and the Rheinland-Pfalz State Symphony leads me to believe that it might be the best of all. The conductor’s readings are by turn energetic thoughtful, and idiomatic, always dance like,
and the BIS engineering team didn’t miss a single nuance. The recording is warm yet so very detailed that not a single small detail of Dvorak’s brilliant orchestration goes unheard. Assuming you have the classic Kubelik or Szell recordings, I’d say go with the Segerstam and factor in the Belohlavek if you can afford two.