I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Gergiev versus Gergiev

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71 – Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Valery Gergiev, Orchestra and Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky MAR0593, 2 SACD (Includes multi-channel 5.0 and stereo mixes), 129 min.

Valery Gergiev frequently returns to music he recorded earlier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but curiously I still haven’t heard a refill of his that actually betters the older attempt. And this isn’t happening either in this new release on the Mariinsky label, coupling his 2015 re-recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Fourth Symphony.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and Symphony No. 4

Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre forces gave us a magnificent Nutcracker back in 1998. After the marketing hype for being “the first complete Nutcracker on a single CD” had settled, this not only turned out to be a tremendously exciting high-voltage traversal, a riot of color, but also a visionary piece of fantasy-theatre with a dark undercurrent that dumped most other recordings of the ballet in the candy store kids department. Most of all, it had a clarity of purpose and the sparkle of discovery.

Fast-forward to 2016 and here is Gergiev again with the same orchestra. Gone is the sparkle of discovery and so is the vision that electrified the older recording. It’s not exactly a bad Nutcracker (actually it’s pretty good one when compared to other recent attempts by Rattle, Järvi and Pletnev), but it’s simply not as compelling or revelatory as the previous one. That Gergiev is marginally less fast (84 against 81 min), is not the main issue (although the Chinese Dance is now bizarrely heavy-footed and the Andante maestoso of the Pas de deux suffers from several drops of tension – for example from 2 min. 20). More important is that this Nutcracker has lost its edge and momentum. Gergiev still reveals a detailed, often dark palette of color and it’s always a delight to hear the superb Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in their repertoire, but the fact remains that overall this is a less focused, much cozier, play safe reading, taking its place among the many. It suffices to listen to the long dramatic passage starting with the Departure of the Guests through the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The Battle is now a whole lot less eventful and fierce, and Gergiev’s pacing in the ensuing Pine forest and the Waltz no longer grabs you by the hand (or the throat) as he did so brilliantly in his older disc. The Mariinsky recording is warm and detailed, emphasizing the lower brass to good effect, although the timpani could ideally have been balanced more forwardly.

What prevents me from giving this release a wholehearted recommendation however is the recording of the Fourth Symphony. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth has to my ears always been the least successful of the six in Gergiev’s hands and this recent take seems to have gone even further south. The flaws and mannerisms of the earlier live recording filmed in Paris in 2011 (available on DVD and Blu-ray), or noted in the concerts I attended that year, are now a major letdown. Gergiev seems bent on underplaying the anguish of this symphony with an ultra-refined treatment and extra careful tempi. Yet the result is a first movement that sounds hesitant, almost timid, with climaxes that make no impact whatsoever. Gergiev’s tempo fluctuations are often gratuitous, and nowhere more so than in the development section just before the return of the fate theme. Worse, the Andantino is no longer in modo di canzona but resembles a sluggish religious procession which turns in circles. The Scherzo makes a better impression, while the Finale kicks off with plenty of drive and brilliant orchestral playing, only to return to dragging mode when the main theme is heard in the strings only (at 3 min. 45). Again, there is so much to admire in the playing of the Mariinsky Orchestra (what beautiful woodwinds), but it all feels like a huge waste.

For the Fourth Symphony the old (now historic) favorites Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Fricsay, Karajan, and others still hold their ground, while for the full-length Nutcracker one can safely stick with Dorati, Jansons, Rozhdestvensky, and… Gergiev 1998.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman


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Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Nutcracker in Vienna

The Nutcracker
Liudmilla Konovalova – Clara
Vladimir Shishov – Drosselmeyer/The Prince
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Paul Connelly
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 7 October 2012
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 718304, 102 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

Swan Lake
Olga Esina – Odette/Odile
Vladimir Shishov – Prince Siegfried
Eno Peci – Rothbart, the Magician
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Alexander Ingram
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 16 March 2014
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 717704, 132 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

C Major released two Tchaikovsky bonbons straight from Vienna – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. As the main classical ballet company in Austria, the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) isn’t particularly over-represented on home video, so these recent performances filmed live in high-definition at the Vienna State Opera are definitely welcome. The driving force behind these releases is without doubt former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Manuel Legris, who is leading the Viennese company since 2010 and has by all accounts established himself as a blessed gift for the thus far slumbering Austrian troupe.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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The Nutcracker in Bergen

The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Bergen Pikekor
Bergen Guttekor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos SACD CHSA5144 84:35 Multichannel Hybrid

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

Someone in the Chandos art department seems to have a fixation on sleeping women. With the release of The Nutcracker Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra completed their Tchaikovsky ballet trilogy and, curiously, each of the CD’s in this series features a reclined lady on the cover. Fair enough in the case of The Sleeping Beauty, but that floating ballerina corpse for Swan Lake was bizarre and now again we get a sleeping girl with a nutcracker doll in her arms. If this is their idea of an art form which is all about movement and energy, then somebody needs to hand these guys at Chandos a few tickets to attend a ballet performance once. In any case, these Tchaikovsky recordings have been rather peculiar in general, thinking of the oddities in the scores that were used, like these anomalous harp cadenzas in both Swan Lake and Beauty, but above all because of a maestro who seemed determined to disprove that old myth that ageing conductors have a tendency to slow down and become sentimental. Not so 77-year-old Neeme Järvi.

The Nutcracker has been done on a single CD before. With 84:35 Järvi isn’t even the fastest in the world, but as we all know it’s not merely about tempo choices, rather about what you do with them and how you balance them in the light of the score’s intent. With such brisk speeds the Overture and the opening numbers of the ballet can still pass on disc, even if the first grins might appear and some listeners will be thinking that this Christmas party isn’t one they would send their kids to. Still, the Bergen Philharmonic miraculously continues to ensure magnificent color and detail. Where Järvi lets us down, however, is in the bigger numbers, when the music suddenly becomes “serious”, starting with Act I, Scene 6 (track 7 of the CD – usually called the Departure of the guests), the ensuing Battle with the mice (track 8) and the grand transformation of the room into the winter pine forest (or when the nutcracker doll turns into a dashing prince – track 9). Here his hasty conducting smothers every sense of feeling (forget poetry and magic), and unsentimental turns into uncaring. At this point Järvi also throws in this disc’s oddity by adding a rather hilarious bim bam clock chiming ten at the beginning of the Departure of the guests, only to be followed three minutes later by the clock striking midnight. This may work on stage, but Tchaikovsky did leave that ten o’clock out of the score for a good reason. The scene of the growing Christmas tree is a speed contest, the battle is running after its own tail and the crucial transformation misses theatrical impact. It suffices to relisten to Evgeny Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic to understand what can be found behind the notes – and he wasn’t exactly a sentimental slob either.

Järvi’s own transformation seems to take place with Act II, at least for a moment. In the opening scenes he finds warmth, orchestral splendor and an agreeable flow. The Divertissement is mostly well handled, too, again with remarkable playing, particularly from woodwinds and harp. Yet the Waltz of the Flowers is disappointing by its lack of dynamic contrast, its brisk tempo and quickly tiresome rubato. The Andante maestoso is coolly dispatched and only of passing interest compared to those who hadn’t forgotten its connection with the theatre.

An admirably responsive and often brilliant Bergen Philharmonic, superb SACD sonics and instructive liner notes from David Nice can’t conceal this Nutcracker is a pretty uneven affair, as is the whole Tchaikovsky ballet series from Bergen and Järvi. And still some continue to pretend that ballet music is easy to play.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
Read the full review on Classical Net