I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman

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Monumental Schubert from Harnoncourt and the Berliner

Franz Schubert:
Symphony #1 in D Major, D 82
Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, D 125
Symphony #3 in D Major, D 200
Symphony #4 in C minor “Tragic”, D 417
Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, D 485
Symphony #6 in C Major, D 589
Symphony #7 in B minor “Unfinished”, D 759
Symphony #8 in C Major “Great”, D 944
Mass #5 in A Flat Major, D 678 *

Luba Orgonášová, soprano
Birgit Remmert, contralto
Kurt Streit, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Mass #6 in E Flat Major, D 950 *
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano
Bernarda Fink, contralto
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Christian Elsner, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Alfonso und Estrella, D 732 (Opera in 3 Acts) *
Dorothea Röschmann (Estrella)
Kurt Streit (Alfonso)
Christian Gerhaher (Froila)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Mauregato)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Adolfo)

* Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Bonus video – Nikolaus Harnoncourt in conversation
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR150061 8CD+Blu-ray [Full HD 16:9, Region Code: ABC (worldwide)]

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

To mark Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 85th birthday, as much as the successful cooperation between the Austrian conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic during some 25 years, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings (BPHR), the orchestra’s own label, releases a monumental Schubert box-set, including all the symphonies, two late Masses and the virtually unknown opera Alfonso und Estrella. Recorded in concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie between 2003 and 2006 and spread over eight CDs and one Blu-ray disc, this deluxe edition arrives in a lavish box, designed like last year’s Schumann/Rattle cycle from BPHR as a beautiful but hard-to-store landscape-sized book. (The discs are available separately as well for download on Qobuz in Studio Master quality and on iTunes and Amazon in low-res AAC and MP3.)

The Blu-ray disc contains all the music in PCM 2.0 Stereo 24-bit/48kHz as well as in 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit/48kHz), plus a 38-minute interview with the conductor (from 2014) about his passion for Schubert and his work with the Berliner. The box also offers a code for free download of the high resolution audio files of the whole edition and a seven-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner’s video streaming venue. A 104-page book (in German and English) guides the listener through the music with articles, commentary from Harnoncourt, and the libretto of the opera and the masses texts.

The trouble, so to speak, for this new Schubert edition is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt already left us an outstanding, hard-to-beat Schubert Symphonies cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam back in 1992 (on Warner/Teldec, now available as a bargain box-set of four CDs). Needless to say, Harnoncourt’s insightful style, the incisive combination of timbres and vibrant textural analysis of the music, and above all his understanding of Schubert’s particular Viennese lyricism, remain in a class of their own. Harnoncourt sees the confrontation of the dancelike vitality with the sense of grief and ever-present nearness of death, a reflection of the so-called Viennese ‘joie de vivre’ at the edge of the grave, as the principal expressive level in Schubert’s music. The extraordinary array of dynamic inflections, harmonic shifts and energized rhythms he reveals prove hugely original and place even the earliest symphonies, often disparaged when seen from the perspective of the famous two last ones, on a higher level. Moreover, the Berliners have throughout the years just as successfully as their colleagues from the Concertgebouw adapted to Harnoncourt’s approach, especially in a time when historical performance practice was anything but taken for granted by a conventional formation.

Still, there is no denying that Harnoncourt is overall less consistent and persuasive in the new Berlin set. The message of sadness is hammered home a bit too emphatically. Take the lovely Andante of the First Symphony which in Amsterdam delicately changed its prevalent poetic mood by alternating major and minor tonalities, becomes in Berlin a pretty anguished piece from start to finish. The sound has somewhat thickened too (although the recording and venue might be partly to blame) and above all the natural flow which was quite miraculously handled in the older recordings is now more often sacrificed to mannered phrasing and tempo shifts (the Scherzo of the “Great” C Major is a prime example). In some cases the balances between movements as well as inside the movements themselves were better judged in the Amsterdam traversal. There are first-rate renditions of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, but Harnoncourt’s tempi frequently slowed down – as for example in the Menuetti of the Second and Fifth symphonies, sounding weightier in their Allegro sections and blurring the contrast with the respective Trios. More worrying is however the ultra-slow “Unfinished” (the Allegro moderato runs 2:20 min longer than in Amsterdam) and while Harnoncourt knows better than anybody how to defend his approach, the ponderous and massive pre-Brucknerian quality he suggests here won’t be to everybody’s taste. The two first movements of the C Major (called here the Eighth as Harnoncourt uses the New Schubert Edition) no longer flow as easily either with over-emphasized accents and moments of indulgence – and truth be told the Berlin woodwinds and brass are simply outgunned here by their Dutch colleagues in sheer character. Climaxes are more theatrical but less subtle (as in the Allegro ma non troppo of the opening movement). The Finale is excitingly driven, but all in all the older Concertgebouw “Great” C Major remains preferable.

The two last Masses are definitely worth having and performed here with tremendous dramatic fervor and a genuine sense of awe. These are extraordinary works, most likely composed out of impulse, according to the conductor even as efforts to come to terms with death – once you heard the dark-colored sonorities of the Kyrie of the E-flat Major, you’ll understand what he means. Harnoncourt’s transposition of period manners into a traditional environment worked tremendously well here and succeeds in bringing out the originality of much of the writing, combining incisive choral singing, superb orchestral parts – and some remarkable solo singing from Dorothea Röschmann, Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Elsner in the et incarnatus est and the Benedictus of the 6th Mass.

Equally rewarding is Schubert’s 1822 opera Alfonso und Estrella, which never found a place in the repertory (and was actually premiered by Franz Liszt in 1854 as an “act of reverence”). Unconventionally written, a reaction against the standard Italian opera pattern which ruled Vienna at the time, Alfonso und Estrella may be hard to stage in the theatre but on disc it’s foremost a small treasure trove of melodic invention, while Harnoncourt makes the utmost of the orchestration. It’s well sung, too, although Jonas Kaufmann would have been preferable to Kurt Streit in the role of Alfonso.

The Berlin Philharmonic offers playing of warmth and virtuosity yet is not particularly well served by the recording, which lack presence, bite and naturalness of timbre. In this respect, too, the older Teldec box remains unsurpassed.

Bottom line is that no real Schubert enthusiast will probably want to be without this box, even if it is something of a mixed blessing when it comes to the Symphonies. Those in possession of the older Concertgebouw set needn’t put that one too far away. Remakes of complete symphonies cycles are apparently much like movie remakes; they are only very rarely better than the original attempt.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/b/bpr50061a.php

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Classic films of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony #9 in D minor “Choral”, Op. 125

Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Agnes Baltsa
René Kollo
José Van Dam
Choir of the Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
EuroArts Blu-ray 2072724 Widescreen Pillarbox (concerts) Fullscreen (bonus) PCM Stereo 119min

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

Karajan and the Berlin Phiharmonic play Beethoven

EuroArts has paired two remarkable historic films of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven on Blu-ray. Both the 1966 Fifth directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and the 1977 New Year’s Eve Ninth are surely familiar to collectors, yet these fascinating documents receive now a welcome high-definition upgrade. The performances are in a class of their own, with the studio-recorded Fifth gaining immensely from the aesthetic vision of Clouzot and the live Ninth remaining a particularly fine demonstration of the Karajan-Berlin team at the top of their game.

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot produced in 1965-67 with Karajan a series of music documentaries dubbed “The Art of Conducting”. They may initially have been intended to acquaint the general public with some of the mysteries of orchestral direction, yet even with only 5 of the projected 13 films completed, they eventually solidified more than anything the image of Karajan as the all-powerful and infallible maestro. The visual and dramatic qualities of these films (they are indeed more “film” than filmed concert), as exemplified here by Beethoven’s Fifth, become all the more apparent when seen alongside Humphrey Burton’s efficient but conventional direction of the New Year’s Eve concert some ten years later. Don’t be surprised to find musicians changing places in this film (like the flutes are suddenly appearing to the right of the oboes in close-ups, only to be in their regular position during longshots). Shot in a stunning true “film noir” black and white, it’s all part of Clouzot’s imaginative and ultimately musical vision. Even almost 50 years after date, this prime example of “music to watch” has hardly ever been surpassed. A box-set release of the whole series of these groundbreaking films in HD may well be out of reach, so we better treasure what there is. (Dvorak’s Ninth and Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin from this series were released on Blu-ray by the C-Major label, but Verdi’s Requiem and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony are still awaiting their HD upgrade).

In a 20-minutes bonus we see Karajan demonstrating an apprentice conductor how to rehearse the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, and in conversation about the purpose of the series. Again, the maestro in total control of every detail.

The 1977 New Year’s Eve concert is one of Karajan’s best renderings of Beethoven’s Ninth, characteristically built on rock-solid basses and surging forward and upward with an extraordinary sense of shape. The last movement is particularly exciting, with a fine quartet (a superb José Van Dam) and excellent choral singing. Karajan conducts the singers with open eyes and on several occasions you see him watching them with admiration, carried away by the beauty of the moment. Even he was after all only human. Burton’s direction may be conventional, but at least he knew how to preserve this concert as a true event.

The 1966 Clouzot film looks very well in HD, rich in contrast, sharp and detailed. The damage appearing on the title cards initially lets you fear the worst, but the film itself is in much better shape. The 1977 concert is in color which shows its age more. Especially the images of Karajan – shot in his then preferred manner against a sidelight – appear quite dark and grainy compared to the better lit orchestra members and singers. While EuroArts announces PCM Stereo only the Ninth is in stereo (the previous DVD release of this concert included a 5.1 DTS Master). As it is, the sound is totally agreeable, detailed and with an especially impressive dynamic range for the concert. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/e/eas72724blua.php


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Herbert von Karajan remastered

Mili Balakirev: Symphony #1 in C Major
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor” (Mono & Stereo Versions)
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Act 4 Entr’acte & Dance of the Persian Slaves); Khovanshchina (Excerpts)1; Boris Godunov (Excerpts)1;
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Serge Prokofieff: Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67²
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20 (Mono & Stereo Versions); The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a; The Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66 (Mono & Stereo Versions); 1812 Overture, Op. 49; Symphony #4 in F minor, Op 36; Symphony #4 in F minor, Op 36 *; Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64, Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétique”, Op. 74
Igor Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes

1 Boris Christoff, bass
2 Peter Ustinov, narrator
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
* Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Warner Classics 2564633620-3 7CDs Mono/Stereo ADD

Claude Debussy: La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Maurice Ravel: Bolero, Alborada del Gracioso **, La Valse **, Rapsodie Espagnole **, Le Tombeau de Couperin **
Georges Bizet: L’ Arlésienne Suite No. 2
Emmanuel Chabrier: Espana Rapsodie
Charles Gounod: Faust-Ballet Music
Hector Berlioz: Hungarian March from “La Damnation de Faust”
César Franck: Symphony in D minor **
Giacomo Puccini: Intermezzo from Suor Angelica, Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Pietro Mascagni: Intermezzo from L’Amico Fritz
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony #8 in G Major, Op. 88, Symphony #9 in E minor “From The New World”, Op. 95, Slavonic Dance #8 in G Minor
Bedřich Smetana: The Moldau from “Ma Vlást”
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in F minor, Op 36; Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64; Symphony #6 in B minor “Pathétique”, Op. 74

** Orchestre de Paris/Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Warner Classics 2564633593-0 7CDs Stereo ADD

Karajan Official Remastered Edition

Karajan Official Remastered Edition

To mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Herbert von Karajan (this 16 July) Warner Classics, now owning the EMI catalogue, reissues a substantial chunk of the Austrian maestro’s legacy. The Official Remastered Edition, as it is called, will comprise 13 box sets regrouping his most remarkable orchestral recordings for EMI, in all 101 discs, spanning a period between 1946 and 1984. (Karajan’s opera recordings are conspicuously absent, but will perhaps be covered in a separate edition.)
Read the full review on Classical Net

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Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker

New Year’s Eve Concert 2007
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Symphony #2 in B minor
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina – Prelude, Dawn over the Moscow River; Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age (Dance)

Russian Rhythms, Waldbühne 2009
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (Three fragments from Act 1, Pas de deux – Grand adage)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 1
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

European Concert 2007
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Parsifal
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op. 102, Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98

European Concert 2008
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin #1 in G minor, Op. 26
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Truls Mørk, cello
Vadim Repin, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EuroArts Blu-ray 2059734 4Discs LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

In a box simply called Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker EuroArts assembles four concerts in Blu-ray format. Captured between 2007 and 2009 these live performances document the orchestra and their current principal conductor in different venues as well as repertoire. From the timeless Berliner Philharmonie (New Year’s Eve concert 2007) and the horrors of the Kabelwerk Oberspree, a former Power and Cable Factory in Berlin (European concert 2007), to the historic Great Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory (European concert 2008) and the open-air concert at the Waldbühne (2009) which closes the season each year – the Berliner plays it all. The titles were previously available on separate discs, while the two European Concerts, the May 1st anniversary gigs of the Berlin Philharmonic, also make their appearance on Blu-ray here.

In all cases the high-definition transfers are a real joy to behold. The widescreen video quality is magnificent, even for the problematic open-air concert which was plagued by inclement weather. The sound is no less satisfying. All discs are offered with robust but crystal clear LPCM 2.0 Stereo tracks and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks; the Waldbühne concert comes with LPCM mixes only, yet closely miked there is no way to miss anything – not even the rain during the performance of The Rite. The filming and editing is in all cases unsurprisingly traditional and notwithstanding the occasional misfired camera virtuosity (no, we aren’t interested in scrutinizing the girders of the Kabelwerk Oberspree during Brahms), will ensure an enjoyable home video experience.

The performances, however, cannot foster the same overall enthusiasm. This being the Berlin Philharmonic, there isn’t anything really bad, yet there isn’t anything really essential to discover either. The booklet coming with the box-set refers to the changes, most obviously in sound and repertoire, that the Berlin Philharmonic underwent after Herbert von Karajan’s longstanding tenure, starting with the appointment of the late Claudio Abbado in 1989 and continued with the arrival of Simon Rattle in 2002. Changes, unavoidable and necessary of course, but often needlessly placed in a confrontational black and white, opposing Karajan as the epitome of artistic stagnation against his successors as the Berliner’s saving grace. Yet precisely a selection of concerts like this questions not only which direction the orchestra has been heading, and what has been gained of real value, it also hints at the limitations of Sir Simon’s often admired versatility in choice of repertoire. (In this respect one wonders if these older maestros would ever have released four concerts in which not one single performance was at least something truly exceptional?)

In the liner notes Simon Rattle is quoted as saying that different composers need to be played differently. The first disc of the New Year’s Eve Concert from 2007, titled in the booklet as “the revolution in Russian music”, ironically seems to suggest the exact opposite. This sounds neither Russian and even less a revolution – not even a German one. It’s simply a run-of-the-mill, low-voltage concert with a conductor venturing on unfamiliar ground. The Borodin Symphony is bland and about as Russian as Hasenpfeffer and Pumpernickel, yet it are the Mussorgsky Pictures that suffer most of all from Rattle who apparently was in constant ritenuto mode this evening. The superficial brilliance of the Berliner cannot make up for some undistinguished solo playing from winds and brass and the massive sonority of the ensemble. It’s not Mussorgsky, it’s not even Ravel – and it’s definitely no consolation it sometimes comes close to Brahms.

The Waldbühne “Russian Rhythms” concert is primarily a happy open air bring-classical-music-to-the-masses event that nothing can and will spoil – who wouldn’t want to hear the Rite of Spring in a chilly night in the pouring rain? – and has arguably little value except as a souvenir for those present. It opens with three hastily dispatched Tchaikovsky Nutcracker bits, only emphasizing Rattle’s complete lack of affinity with this music (why bother with just the three first numbers from the ballet in a concert anyway?) His traversal of The Rite of Spring is on the other hand the perfect illustration of what Richard Taruskin called the “showcase of orchestral prowess” which Stravinsky’s most talked-about work has become. The Berlin Philharmonic plays impressively (the woodwinds are favored in the mix, yet not many formations can top such ravishing colors) but virtually all tension, darkness and surprise (except for the occasional Rattle mannerism) has disappeared. That there are still approaches possible that can pack a punch, however, is proven by Salonen, Jansons, Boulez, Dorati, Markevitch and the likes. In between, Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third is more rewarding. It’s a polished reading, effortless, well-balanced and well accompanied, without pathos or excess but boasting a warm sonority.

The two European Concerts present Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic of the 21st century in a much more propitious light and are by far the most convincing of this box-set. The 2007 edition took place in a none too attractive old Berlin factory (the acoustics seem to be good) and offers core-German repertory which (although this is no guarantee for success) has been in the orchestra’s repertory for a long time. (Interestingly, the orchestra is placed differently in this venue as in the traditional Viennese manner with violins divided and the basses lined at the back.) Rattle’s Prelude to Parsifal may be more posh than profound, but the Brahms Double Concerto featuring the ideally attuned Lisa Batiashvili on violin and Truls Mørk on cello is a magnificent performance in every respect. Dedicated to the great Mstislav Rostropovich who had died four days earlier, Rattle’s accompaniment is sensitive and finely balanced, securing beautiful playing from both soloists and orchestra. His Brahms Fourth, however, is colorful and contemplative rather than incisive and taut, and appears less than ideally focused in the latter half.

The final disc covers the 2009 edition which took place in Moscow, exactly 40 years after the orchestra’s first visit under Herbert von Karajan, in this very same hall of the illustrious Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Times have changed, thankfully, as the liner notes remind us: no more KGB surveillance, no more formally attired musicians (count the multicolored ties) and patrons, but also no more Dmitry Shostakovich moved to tears congratulating the orchestra and its conductor for the overwhelming performance. A fine concert, nonetheless, especially for Vadim Repin’s subtly poetic rendition of Max Bruch’s 1st Violin Concerto, sympathetically accompanied by Rattle, and a flexible and joyous account of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Rattle’s Beethoven Seventh however sounds like a work in progress; rhythmically alert and detailed, here too he brings out the fun, but little else – an efficient, but unsurprising reading. Compared to what Abbado and Karajan in their lifelong quests achieved in this symphony, or in Beethoven in general, with this same orchestra, this is more than a step back. But then again, theirs isn’t a tarnished legacy. It’s a tough act to follow.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net.

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Some Legends Never Die

Henri Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto #4 in D minor, Op. 31 *
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58

* Hilary Hahn, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Tugan Sokhiev
Berlin Philharmonie 31 May 2014

Hilary Hahn © Peter Miller/ DG

Hilary Hahn (© Peter Miller/ DG)

There is no doubt about it, catching the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in their iconic Philharmonie in their hometown, remains something of an event. Forget all the HD big screen broadcasts. Cliché but true: nothing beats the live experience. With a program described as “Two Symphonies, one with a soloist, one with a hero”, the Berlin Philharmonic under guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev and joined by violinist Hilary Hahn, offered a remarkable evening of undiluted romanticism. Neither Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony nor Vieuxtemps’ 4th Violin Concerto are works one would readily associate with the Berliners, but then again, lest we should forget, the orchestra has long since left the path of security and predictability when it comes to repertory choice. It’s with an unusual setup like this that an orchestra can demonstrate its versatility and strength. And that’s exactly what happened here.
Read the full review on Classical Net

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Alien Strauss

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30; Don Juan, Op. 20; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 4791041

Dudamel's debut disc with the Berlin Philharmonic

Dudamel’s debut disc with the Berlin Philharmonic

Perhaps we should cut the guy some slack? To be hyped as “the most exciting and gifted young conductor of our times” when you are facing your first recording with the “legendary Berlin Philharmonic”, is anything but helpful. Surely, everybody is expecting you to move the earth. But even so, with everything reset to human proportions, it’s still a fact that Gustavo Dudamel’s debut disc with the Berlin Philharmonic in a well-tried Richard Strauss triple bill isn’t bound to move much.
Read the full review on Classical Net

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On unfamiliar ground

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 631621-2 DDD 2CDs Deluxe Edition

The Nutcracker

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker by Simon Ratlle

It’s rare that a conductor admits in the liner notes to his new disc that he hasn’t always been much of a fan of the composer he is playing. But then again anyone familiar with the career of Sir Simon Rattle may have noticed he has so far been avoiding the music of Tchaikovsky like some rare disease. The release of a complete Nutcracker with the Berlin Philharmonic, moreover to mark Rattle’s 30th anniversary as recording artist with EMI, therefore has our undivided attention.
Read the full review on Classical Net