Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; The Nutcracker Suite

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; The Nutcracker Suite
PERFORMER: Stuttgart Radio SO, SWR/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.254

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If you’re familiar with Roger Norrington’s Stuttgart Bruckner and Mahler, you’ll know what to expect. On the plus side, there’s a healthier than usual balance between orchestral departments, so that woodwind detail in ensembles registers clearly and brass are bright but never overbearing. On the minus side, certainly for the live Tchaikovsky Five, is the more or less vibrato-free string playing.

That means that the first movement impresses in both the low clarinet opening and the brisk main march, but hits a reef when the second subject waxes lyrical. There’s certainly no need for it to be indiscriminately emotional, but the phrasing needs a lift and the finest interpreters – Pappano, Abbado, Muti – apply bel canto to make the melody sing, which it doesn’t here.

The same goes for the big climaxes of the Andante cantabile – is there a scholarly precedent for the cut of bars 144-6? – and the waltz sounds rather ungracious from the violins, though it’s nice to hear the slightly sinister stopped horns so clearly and the bassoon leaning on his accents.

The finale is cleanly textured, but there’s little pride in the shining transformation of Tchaikovsky’s ‘providence’ motif and no digging-deep into the ensuing conflict.

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Norrington might have gone for more classical poise in the Nutcracker’s ‘Miniature Overture’, more spruce articulation for the ‘March’, and greater élan in the ‘Trepak’. The sugar-plum celesta starts in the higher octave which ought only to be the provenance of her refrain. At least, since this is the Suite, we’re spared what vibrato-less cellos might make of the ballet’s ‘Pas de Deux’. David Nice