Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: The Nutcracker
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 646 3852

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Physically this is a beautiful production, the discs tucked between decorative hard covers with a 60-page booklet full of early production photographs and costume designs that immediately demand to be pored over. Every purchaser gets a unique passcode to access additional online content – live concert footage, interviews and more.

Musically, too, on most counts this is a highly competitive version. Rattle shapes each movement with a firm hand and is concerned to maximize its individual character, while the playing of the Berliners is always beautiful and full of verve, with real passion and even grandeur in the great Pas de deux. Act I is bright and dramatic; the famous characteristic dances in the Act II Divertissement are done with elegance and gusto; and there’s a real sense, in the final Apotheosis, of bringing an utterly unified work to a satisfying end. 

What I miss in it isn’t easily definable, but in the last analysis I think it’s the sense of fantasy, the lightness of touch that informs the ballet’s underlying idea. There’s so much to admire and yet there’s a certain literalness in the interpretation, an occasional beefiness in the sound, that keeps the actual magic in short supply.

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For that magic you have to go to Ashkenazy and the RPO on Decca, or Mackerras with the LSO on Telarc. Valery Gergiev, too, with the Kirov Orchestra (Philips) brings a Slavonic ardour that Rattle cannot quite match. But in a quite crowded field, this is certainly at the top of the next-best contenders – and will look good in any Christmas stocking. Calum MacDonald