TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker. STRAVINSKY: Le Baiser de la Fée: Divertimento / Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra; Dmitrij Kitayenko, conductor / Oehms Classics OC448
Finding new recordings of the Nutcracker, like Messiah, is never very difficult, but finding recordings that 1) do justice to the score without being too fast for dancing and 2) have life and lift to them is not as easy. I’ve sampled so many versions over the decades, but have never previously found a single version to compete with Artur Rodzinski (Westminster) or, best of all, Richard Bonynge (Decca).
Well, now I’ve found one. Dmitrij Kitayenko, who is certainly no spring chicken (he’s 11 years older than I am, which makes him 76), quite obviously has this music in his blood and, better yet, is able to convey exactly want he wants to the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. On top of this, the recorded sound is absolutely, positively fantastic. Inner voices come leaping out of your speakers as clearly as they did with Rodzinski, but the more modern microphone placement and a little more space around the instruments provides a welcome twinkle, so to speak, to the proceedings.
Many Nutcracker aficionados base their reaction to a recording by the “characteristic dances,” but when listening to the complete ballet I always prefer those moments in the first half in which Tchaikovsky created tone portraits of the characters—Drosselmeyer, Clara, the Nutcracker and the Mouse King—and, best of all, the “growing of the tree” scene which has to be one of the composer’s most inspired moments. A good example of what I mean by “danceable” tempos comes early on, in the “March,” too often taken at a blistering pace that seems more like a polka tempo than a march. Kitayenko may be a shade slow here, but it’s better than being too fast, and as throughout this performance the inner voices just swirl around you and make you think, “I’ve never heard it quite like that before!”
In addition to providing us with a Nutcracker that is both a fine dancing version and a delightful listening experience, Kitayenko also manages something few other conductors are able to do, and that is to inject some personality into the musical portrayals of the characters. My sole complaint of this performance is that Kitayenko sometimes loses forward momentum, but not often enough to be problematic. In the most complex scene—the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and the ensuing battle of the mice—he has as firm a grasp on the music as anyone.
Kitayenko fills out the second disc with the Divertimento from Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky-inspired ballet La Baiser de la Fée, which some critics feel is his best work. Here the conductor is a bit on the slow side but once again provides an almost X-ray hearing of the score.
Overall, I still think the Bonynge recording is the finest ever made—and I’m not a really big Bonynge fan—but this one is a close second of those recorded after 1970. And as I said earlier, the sonics are simply unreal. Just a for-instance: have you ever heard the solo violin behind the solo flute in the “Waltz of the Flowers”? I never have. But it’s there!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley