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.