It is imposable entering the holiday season to walk across Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood and do not be “abused” by sound of Nutcracker coming from each open window. I just returned from my 15 minuets walk across Beacon Hill to my favorite Antonio’s resonant at Cambridge Street and I testify that I heard the Nutcracker coming from 4 homes! I know that Beacon Hill has a lowest in the country ratio of parking spots per capita of residences but I never knew that Beacon Hill has also a critical mass of Nutcracker per open window. :-)
Anyhow, to make a contribution to Nut-Cracking humanity I would pass some my observations andperhabs recommendations about the Nutcracker.
Nutcracker was composed by Tchaikovsky during winter 1891 - spring 1892 and it was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Marinsky Theatre on December 1892 (conducted by Riccardo Drigo). Tchaikovsky himself, in the same year, arranged the ballet score for a solo piano and composed the eight-numbers Suites.
The Nutcracker performed countless amount of times, recorded by zillion contactors. It has a strong reputation of being a pop repertoire of classical music. The “light” reputation of Nutcracker derives not only because it is well-overplayed by even those coca-cola commercials and not only because each township armature orchestra has it under thier belt but also because the Nutcracker has fairly light and non-serious musical value. It is certainly so, but still there is something in Nutcracker that differentiate it form the Strausses Waltzs and from the rest of the musical cream-cheese.
Look, did you even come across to the observation that that catchy-tune music composed by Tchaikovsky (or for instance by Mozart) is the most difficult to find well performed? I have no idea why but we overwhelmed with humongous amount bad performance of the so-call “light” music. Can you tell me when you heard last time a good performance of “Eine line Nachtmusik”? I do not think I even can recall any! So, what happens with Nutcracker? The very much same: there are very few good performers of this composition and I would easily name the successful attempts of the Mahler’s V then the Nutcrackers. Is it ironic?
Before, jumping into the Nutcracker’s successful attempts I would like to point out where the lightweight Nutcracker’s reputation derives from. I feel people do not approach the Nutcracker in the way this work should be approach. People for whatever foolish reasons search in Nutcracker for some kind of self-contain musical persistent idea, the idea’s development, for a drama and devilish mischievousness, for a typical musical idea embellishment but the Nutcracker has none of it. In fact the Nutcracker has as dull program as it is theoretically possible! Nutcracker is bogus but the bogusness of Nutcracker is was something that was intentionally built-in into this ballet. The Hoffmann’s story and the Petipa’s chorographic objectives were just the reasons for Tchaikovsky but they were not his motivations. Tchaikovsky in Nutcracker went to a quite high level of abstraction and intensely superficial stylizations. The Russian music in Nutcracker is hardly Russian, French parts are hardly French, the Chinese dances has no relation to china, the Arabian dances are not Arabian at all, the German music is not German, the Georgian and Spanish dances are completely without any reference to Georgia or Span. The plot is sick, non-consistent and actually very pointless….
But her is where the beauty comes: this ballet does not require any application to any rational or lucidness, the adult rational I have to add…
The Nutcracker is not about Christmas with its all-wonderful-stories but rather about the composer’s, audiences or a listener’s trip to own state of mind where all of that rational was irrelevant – to the childhood. Nutcracker is a meaningless rollercoaster to the past; to the stage of our primary simplicity and effortlessness, and minimalism; to the period when we were not able to rationale; to the moments when we did not know that there is good and evil; to the times when we do not know that we divided on males and females, Indians and Pakistani, seller and buyers, blacks and whites, manufacturers and consumers, liberals and conservatives; to that time when we were able to perceive live “as is”…. This state of “as is”- the state of the instantaneous genius - IS SOMETHING that is fully celebrated in Nutcracker. Listen to a good performance of the “Valse des Fleurs” – probably that best peace in Nutcracker, - how simple and naive it is and how much it can accommodate it you are: in the state of being “as is”! Do you recognize behind those simplistic tunes the dance of the laughingly-noble dressed mice who agree that thier fight in “Tom and Jerry” is just an endless game? Could this Waltz be a finally united dance of the “pardoned” mice from a none-sophisticated family of animals? How far this music from the Cats and Mice spinning in all-forgiving dance? How far this music from a united Arabs and Jews dance? The differences are so superficial and are purely subjects of a perspective! The differences exist only within our adult world, -the adult world of the awareness’s frighten by experiences. In the children world – in the world of the Nutcracker – the differences are neglected and if they are accepted then only for the sake of fun and game. Isn’t it something that we - the big and serious people who understand Mahler or Bruckner – might learn from children and perhaps to learn from the Nutcracker Music? Isn’t the Nutcracker just an invitation to waltz with your own past when you were able do not be afraid to get the World “as is”?
Nutcracker dose not have beginner or end, its parts have no relations, and listing or watching the Nutcracker is more like an introvertial journey. When you sit in the theater and the Nutcracker’s transformation (the decorations are expending) and the plot dives from the realty of Clara’s family to world of the Mice, dolls and the frustrations of the Christmas tree’s toys then any relationships between awareness and perception should be abandon. To help this abandoning Tchaikovsky begin to write music that is so nonfigurative and so uncomplicated that it become even revolting for anybody who did not accept the rules of the “trip” or do not have the “trip’s” destination. Her is where the “complexities” of the Nutcracker are coming from…
The complexity of the Nutcracker derives form ability of an orchestra to “let it go”. I mean any minute “thinking”, any minute smartening of Nutcracker makes music to become “overly trying” and stick to the body of the Nutcracker’s intention something absolutely alien. Perhaps this is why so many conductors were not able to perform Nutcracker well- the were not able to handle the Nutcracker’s superb simplicity and none-sophistication.
Before I would name some “interesting” Nutcrackers I would like to mention that for a sake of “rightnessness of the trip” I will not differentiate the full score ballet from the suites: I am not taking about the musical renderations but rather about the performance ability to grasp the Nutcracker core. Also, I will mention the performances within any specific order.
!) Efrem Kurtz lading the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1958. This is in some ways atypical EMI recording with overly ambianic Kingsway Hall sound. Efrem Kurtz did quite magical job and his Nutcracker sound very non-intrusive and fluent. BTW, if you go for this cycle of the Kurtz ballets then do not miss his “Swan Lake” – the magnificently slowest performance ever was committed to record and with Menuhin playing solo parts (probably the best play by Menuhin that I can recall)… The Angel LPs are widely available. Some of the CD transfers are very good.
!) Sir Thomas Beecham leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1954. Beecham recorded Nutcracker 4 times (1939, end 40s and 1958) but his performance of 1954 was the most interesting. I have no idea what attracts me in this Beecham reading but if I conduct Nutcracker I would do it exactly like Beecham did. He has even some tempo and accent’s “idiosyncrasies” that I always consider were necessary and that I always missed in the readings of the other conductors. Suddenly the Beecham’s Nutcracker has them all! Go figure why!… The EMI LPs and CDs are widely available and cost practically nothing.
!) Mstislav Rostropovich with Berlin Philharmonic in 1978. This is kind of very strange event. Rostropovich usually is quite clueless on podium but during the 1978 event with Berlin Philharmonic he did something phenomenal. It was the years when Rostropovich just escaped form Russia and he needed to show off to the World (and perhaps to himself) that his is capable of lead an orchestra. During this recording cycle (all 3 Tchaikovsky ballet suits) Rostropovich made Berlin Philharmonic to sound totally different: a typically Russian dazzlingly-vulgar tone with crude brasses and hysterically-unbalance strings. The Germans embraced it but added to it the superb performing discipline, bred by centuries cense of balance and a certain, typical for Berlin, ability to “do the things”. The Rostropovich’s reading was suddenly absolutely unbelievable, particularly in the “Swan Lake” (the superbly serious and dramatic ballet). The Nutcracker turned out to be slightly less “loaded” and more “dancing-type” then “feeling type” but still I feel that that those Nutcracker suits were very-very fine… The DG LPs are widely available for a fortunately very little money. The quality of recording is superb. The CD transfer by “Originals” is OK but could be better.
!) Mravinsky with Leningrad Philharmonic. Well, this is something very different. Mravinsky actually “recomposed” the Nutcracker, He refused to call his version “The Suits” but he called it “Excepts from Nutcracker”. He compiled his totally own version that as “a whole” is quite complex, unexpectedly dramatic and actually “works” as a serious symphonic peace. Mravinsky recorded his version of Nutcracker 3 times – in 1946, 1956 and 3-4 times in 1981-82. The performance in 1981-82 is fine but as anything else that Mravinsky did in 80s they are not as they should be. The performance in 1946 is fantastic and unlike any other Nutcracker in existence. This performance is perhaps something that made me to understand and appreciate Nutcracker VERY differently. It is very dark, solemn, almost frightening, with just enough light in it to make shadows stand out. It more remains more Shostakovich quartets then Tchaikovsky Nutcracker… but it is the Nutcracker! The CDs of 1981-82 performances (2 or 3 different versions) are widely available. The performance of 1956 is available only as a bootleg and it has some “issues”. The performance of 1946 is available on LP only by Melodia. However it is VERY difficult to get it.
!) It is imposable to talk about the Nutcracker and do not mention what Martha Argerich with Nicolas Economou did to this peace in 1983. They performed the dual piano version of Nutcracker. Their Nutcracker is more teasing and lighthearted then I would like (a typical superficiality-overly-exciting Argerich’s sin). However, the interesting part, and perhaps even insulating part, is that in this case the two-piano play sounded musically more richer and more fulfilling then the performance of an entire orchestra. Listen to the “Danse de la Fee Dragee” and you will not need any orchestra’s impressiveness. I sincerely feel that Argerich and Economou made a very voluble notch for whoever is interesting in Nutcracker. The DG LPs are available and the CD transfer is very good quality.
Romy the Cat
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche