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.
Most of us know the wonderful Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak, and they exist in dozens of recordings (my favorites are Szell and Kubelik), but few have heard the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, which truly fit the bill of “neglected masterpieces.” They’ve been recorded here and there, usually one or the other of them as a filler for a recording of a more established Dvorak work, but the inventive audiophile label Pentatone has released all three of them at a time on a new disc conducted by Jakub Hrusa. The excellent orchestra is the PKF – Prague Phihlarmonia, a young ensemble bursting with energy and virtuoso players. The rhapsodies have good tunes galore. The first begins quietly with a more martial middle section, whereas the the second is more episodic. The third had more of a
carnival atmosphere which relates to the the more familiar dances. The filler piece here is far more than that, a rousing rendition of the composer’s Symphonic Variations, a composition that makes one marvel at Dvorak’s brilliant orchestrations. The recorded sound is a on a par with the compelling performances, in other words first rate, fairly close up yet reverberate and warm. Though I downloaded these performances, they have been released on a Hybrid SACD and if Pentatone is true to form, the rear channels will add just the right hall echo to give the front channels a super three-dimensional sense. While you’re at it, check out the earlier Hrusa Pentatone recording of Dvorak Overtures. Ignore the Amazon 3 star rating; five stars here. I hope Pentatone continue its relationship with this conductor and orchestra. More recordings would be welcome!
Over half a year ago, I raved about Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn performances on the LSO Live label. Now along comes a disc containing the first and fourth symphonies and I am happy to report that it is just as fine as the previously released recordings. Once again the orchestra is the London Symphony and once again it pays magnificently, with refined, virtuoso abandon, and there’s an especially wonderful oddity in the performance of the first symphony. When the piece was first performed in England, Mendelssohn switched out the third movement, using the scherzo from his popular Octet, re-orchestrating it to include
wind parts. Gardiner includes this (as well as the regular third movement from the published score) and it is a total, Mercurial delight! This is the world of a A Midsummer Night’s Dream with strings and winds skittering around like elusive Will O’ the Wisps. The performance of the 4th “Italian” symphony is as good as I’ve heard, there’s beauty and elegance everywhere in the first three movements and the last one really strikes fire. The recorded sound is as good as it gets, whether you play the Blu-ray or SACD disc (both are included). A must buy and with the holidays not far away, perhaps a must gift. And now, speaking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s time for a Gardiner/LSO recording of that wonderful score.
Archiv Productions was founded in Germany in 1945 as a subsidiary label of Deutsche Grammophon. It’s purpose was to record older music in performances authentic to the periods covered. DG has already issued a box of CDs that was an overview of Archiv’s entire history. Now they have a new box which focuses in on the label’s stereo analogue recordings, made between 1959 and 1981. I think they’ve done a splendid job at hitting all the highlights. Karl Richter’s Bach recordings are represented by one of the cantatas and the Magnificat. Richter recorded around 75 of the cantatas and his approach was admired for its vigor, precision, and strength. August Wenzinger recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks using a large wind band without strings, the way Handel originally wrote it for the first performance. Trevor Pinnock’s recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites, one of the first of many that Pinnock made for Archiv is here, as is Telemann’s Der Getreue Music-Meister.
Remarkable recordings by Charles Mackerrs, Simon Preston, and Helmut Walcha are all here along with many surprises, all pleasant ones. Archiv producers not only took great care with the arts and repertory for the label but also with the recorded sound. Every CD in this magnificent set is state-of-the-art for its day and most still hold that title up to present time. Each disc is in a cardboard sleeve that duplicates, on a smaller scale, the original vinyl album art work. You can see that in the beginning, it was the cream colored, plain sleeves that were all alike except of the artists and compositions. The label later went to silver with color inserts alternating with full color bordered in silver. They are all beautifully reproduced for this set. There’s an informative booklet delineating the entire series, complete with period photographs of the artists.
There’s not a clunker in this elegant set; it should be a much demanded gift item for the holiday season coming up in six months. But it is so appealing that if you bought it now, you’d probably want to keep it yourself.