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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op 71 (1892) [93:17]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. Mosfilm Recording Studios, Studio 1, Moscow, March 2011
ONDINE ODE1180-2D [49:01 + 44:16]

In the early stereo period, eminent conductors - Antal Dorati, Artur Rodzinski, and, above all, Ernest Ansermet - regularly turned out stylish recordings of The Nutcracker. After the last two I reviewed - Svetlanov's coarse, graceless account (Melodiya MELCD1000409) and Maninov's inept one (RPO SP006)- I feared that those days were gone. Fortunately, Mikhail Pletnev shows that the old magic isn't completely lost.
First off, the post-Soviet Russian National Orchestra produces tone so polished that veteran listeners might well not identify the players as Russian. The horns are firm, neither watery nor wobbly; woodwinds, while distinctive in timbre, blend well as a choir; strings are warm, but their phrasing is neatly manicured and tapered, not shaggy. These suave sounds outclass those of Svetlanov's USSR State Symphony by leagues. Indeed, the RNO surpasses Ansermet's Suisse Romande Orchestra in technical expertise, though it can't match that ensemble's uniquely translucent sonorities.
Interpretively, Pletnev has managed to preserve the positive aspects of Russian orchestral playing: the bright, forward ensemble sound, the lyrical commitment, and the high energy level. The tuttis, particularly in Act One, are grand, full, and solid. The conductor's care over expressive details is gratifying: the clarinet eases gracefully into the middle section of the opening scene; later, the introductory bars of Grandfather's Dance bring a similar sense of "pickup".
In much of Act One, however, the dynamism isn't always accompanied by a comparable finesse of execution. In the crisp Petit galop des enfants, the 6/8 passage beginning at 1:25 goes with both lift and weight, but the balance is off at 2:11, with the string and wind scales obscuring the trumpet's melody. Slogging chords weigh down the passage beginning at 3:47 of the Scène. The Departure of the Guests is taut and dramatic, but after 5:30 the reed triplets keep threatening to come unstuck from the theme, or perhaps vice versa.
Beginning with the easy, lyrical unfolding of the forest scene, however, things mostly right themselves. The darting, anxious start to the Waltz of the Snowflakes scene immediately draws the listener in. The opening of Act II is leisurely and expansive, and Pletnev moves straightforwardly through the Nutcracker's entrance, without any portentous grandstanding.
The characteristic dances, for once, have plenty of character: the faster dances are crisp and lively; the slower ones atmospheric, even moody. An awkward ritard at the end of the Danse des mirlitons causes a sloppy landing, but the conductor recovers with forthright address for Mother Gigogne's entry, and highlights the piquancy of the quirky waltz for the clowns. Indeed, one of the subtle incidental pleasures of Pletnev's performance is the distinctive character he finds for each of the waltzes. There's lovely breadth to the Waltz of the Snowflakes; a translucent buoyancy to the Waltz of the Flowers, though the tempo is slowish for dancing; and a hearty swing to the Apotheosis.
When all's said and done, the flaws, while passing, keep this fine performance just below the level of my longtime favorites: the gleaming Ansermet (Decca), the lustrous Bonynge (also Decca), and the warmly played and recorded Dorati/Concertgebouw (Philips - I've never understood the acclaim for his tense, wiry-sounding Mercury account). Pletnev's handling of fine points, however, makes it a worthy supplement to one of those others.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.