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On unfamiliar ground
am 29. Oktober 2010
It's amusing to read from a conductor in a foreword to his newest recording, moreover meant to feature as plat de résistance of his 30 years with EMI campaign, that he previously hasn't been much of a fan of the composer he is playing. Of course, it has never been a secret that Simon Rattle isn't a Tchaikovsky admirer and anyone who remembers the budding maestro accompanying Russian pianist Emil Gilels in Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto in the early Birmingham days, knows this went hand in hand with an evident lack of affinity with the composer's world. And although the light often appears with age and Rattle readily admits he always has had a soft spot for the ballets, a complete recording of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" with the Berlin Philharmonic is still something of a surprise.
I wish, though, it would have been an event as well. Rattle's "Nutcracker" was recorded in late December 2009, with the 2nd Act spliced from the Silvesterkonzert to a studio recording. What immediately struck me are the lack of imagination and atmosphere of Rattle's approach. Surely, he gives us beautifully played snapshots, spotlighting Tchaikovsky's ever inventive orchestration as well as honoring his dynamic markings, but he doesn't share much of a story and the few dramatic snippets he finds are sadly missing in evocative power. He is discovering the score and seems to be mesmerized by the wealth of its melodies, but more than that as yet he isn't able to give. While Rattle rightfully emphasizes in his foreword the revolutionary quality of the score, highly influential on Stravinsky's ballets, his reading remains too relaxed and uneventful to convince. Don't try looking for the magic of a Christmas night here. The 1st scene is already played so uninvitingly off-hand that all you want to do is leave right away and look for a more promising party. Characteristically, the Berlin Philharmonic luxuriously wallows in its own virtuosity, yet it all sounds too much of a slick beauty contest without body and even less soul. Although expansively recorded the more weightier moments in the music lack punch as if Rattle always seems to hold back in the climaxes. After a rather unexciting battle, "In The Pine Forest" is curiously hesitant and disregards the sense of discovery and magic of the scene. The Pas de deux in Act 2 never really blooms.
The EMI recording lacks detail and clarity, which spoils much of the fun in this brilliant score. Strings and woodwinds are forwardly balanced, and during the orchestral climaxes in Act 1 the Berlin machinery tends to sound congested. (This release also comes in a deluxe limited edition, offering a beautifully illustrated miniature hardcover book of some 60 pages, including next to Rattle's foreword, an essay on the history of the ballet, a synopsis, and notes on the Berlin Philharmonic and the conductor.)
Other conductors have given us far more satisfying readings: Ernest Ansermet finding character in every note; Antal Dorati, especially his recording with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam; Semyon Bychkov with a Berlin Philharmonic sounding far more inspired in 1986; Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra in one of his very best moments on disc. For a selection of excerpts Yevgeni Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic remains required listening.