Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Visions of Sugarplums
Yes, there are reasons to simply listen to the Nutcracker. Some would argue that it's actually preferable to experience Tchaikovsky's fanciful ballet without the seasonal trappings, without having to follow the toy soldiers and the sugarplum fairies as they tumble through their annual rituals. That's because the suggestions and intimations of motion start with the orchestra. Strip away the visual cues, and what you encounter is inventive, wide-extremes scoring and boisterous melodies that bounce from one section to another—in some ways this is a concerto for orchestra. Besides, any composer who can create a charming dance out of the pushing and shoving of wooden figures has some kind of mojo working.
Tchaikovsky's final ballet, the Nutcracker was composed between 1891 and 1892, and was most often heard as an abridged orchestral suite until the 1960s, when ballet companies worldwide embraced it. Throughout the first act, he creates a tranquil children's playroom scene. There's no dark storminess, not even so much as a bass fiddle. He begins with racing, stair-climbing lines for the violins, and within minutes, listeners are swept into a child's fidgety Christmas Eve anticipation. The energetic, sometimes sharply rhythmic themes help illustrate the onstage pantomimes of Act 1—Clara's imaginary journey with the Nutcracker and the battle with malevolent mice. Act 2 pretty much dispenses with plot altogether; it's a series of exuberant dances, each with its own idiosyncratic orchestration. To conjure the mythic Sugarplum Fairy, Tchaikovsky uses little more than tartly plucked strings and celesta.
Animation is the name of the game with the Nutcracker, and the Kirov Orchestra's version, guided by Russian conductor valery Gergiev, at times feels electrically charged. Gergiev brings out the quirks of the score but doesn't linger over them—everything moves at a breezy clip. How breezy? Most recordings of the piece are spread over two compact discs; this version fits, if just barely, on one.
Released: 1998, Philips
Key Tracks: "Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes," "Grandfather Dance," "Pas de deux: Variation 2 (Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy)"
Catalog Choice: Swan Lake, Philadelphia Orchestra (Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.)
Next Stop: Aram Khachaturian: Spartacus, Vienna Philharmonic (Ernest Ansermet, cond.)
After That: Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Robert Shaw, cond.)
Book Pages: 767–768