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.
Collections of classical music appropriate to Halloween have been spotty over the past few years. First recommendations would be the classic collections conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson and Eiji Oue, both still sonic adventures and artistic wonders. This year Decca has added Danse Macabre, a collection by Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. This is the same ensemble with which Decca made so many memorable recordings conducted by Charles Dutoit. Nagano is now music director and Decca apparently intends to keep recording. In addition to the usual fare – Danse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it includes three rarities – Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch, Balakirev’s Tamara, and Ives’ Halloween. The latter is merely a curiosity,
mostly of interest to aficionados, but the other two are major compositions worthy of interest. The Dvorak is a chilling musical tale of a mother who calls forth a demon to quiet her noisy child only to have her gruesome wish come true. The Balakirev tells the story of a malevolent spirit who lures men to her castle only to dispatch them in horrible ways. Nagano’s performances are ultra smooth but a bit bloodless at times; the French horns seem to be recessed a bit in the mix and that possibly has a lot to do with the polite attitude. Still, the disc does have the two unusual repertory choices and the playing is refined and of virtuoso caliber. The Gibson and Oue discs also have singular works on them (Arnold and Franck, respectively) so you really must have all three releases for a fairly complete classical Halloween, not to mention some larger works by Berlioz, Boito, and Gounod, etc. Maybe I will get around to those next year. Happy haunting.
When this recording was first offered for review by Naxos, I thought it was another small ensemble recording of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Ah, but what a difference an initial makes. These are suites by J. B. Bach, Johann Bernhard Bach in full. On searching a bit further, one can find that J. B. was a second cousin of J. S. and thrived in Germany from 1676 to 1749. He was a highly regarded composer in his day. Most of his compositions have been lost, but the orchestral suites survive, in part because J. S. had them copied for his orchestra.
It is no wonder that the more famous Bach recognized his cousin’s talent. Sounding more akin to Telemann than any of the Bachs, these are vivacious works with good imagination, excellent melodies, and masterful orcehestration. The lively performances on a new Ricercar recording by the chamber ensemble L’Acheron, led by bassist Francois Joubert-Caillet make a good case for this music. The joyous performances are never less than appealing; I especially enjoyed the continuo swap-offs among harpsichord, guitar, and arhlute. The recrded sound is clean andcloseup, revealing every detail.
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!