December 22, 2016


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete); Stravinsky: Divertimento from “Le baiser de la Fée.” Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites for Piano Four Hands. Mari Kodama and Momo Kodama, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 2. Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 3—original version (1873). Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Profil. $16.99.

     The pairing of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with Stravinsky’s divertimento on music from his tribute to Tchaikovsky, Le baiser de la Fée, is an unusual one – and so interesting that a new Oehms release may make listeners wonder why this combination is not offered more often. Stravinsky composed his ballet for the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, in 1928, and included orchestrations and expansions of some early Tchaikovsky piano pieces and other little-known material in it. He filtered the Tchaikovsky originals through his own then-current neoclassical style, and the result is a work that sounds entirely like Stravinsky while at the same time clearly paying tribute to the Russian Romantic era, and lying close to that time if not actually within it. Dmitrij Kitajenko has some particularly interesting ideas about Tchaikovsky – for instance, he concluded his cycle of the symphonies with the rarely played No. 7, not with No. 6, as most conductors do. His ideas about Stravinsky bear hearing, too: Kitajenko emphasizes the balletic nature of the music while at the same time effectively bringing out details of its orchestration, with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln playing superbly, as is its wont. Kitajenko focuses on the balletic elements of The Nutcracker, too, and while this may scarcely seem surprising, in fact it produces a rather unusual performance in which tempos are nearly always held in check, as they would be to allow dancers to perform elaborate steps – rather than delivered briskly, as this music generally is in the concert hall. The result is a performance that sometimes drags – the opening scenes are simply too expansive – but that often includes felicitous touches, with a particularly effective Großvatertanz and a crackling battle with the mice, plus the unusual and delightful decision to have a children’s chorus provide the vocalise for Waltz of the Snowflakes. The character pieces in the second act are as charming as always, with the percussion in Mutter Gigoen und die Polichinelles especially enjoyable; and here the apotheosis at the ballet’s end actually carries some weight and seems a suitable rather than peremptory conclusion. Kitajenko takes a highly personal approach to Tchaikovsky in general and The Nutcracker in particular, and the pairing of the ballet with the Stravinsky makes for an unusually interesting release.

     Pairing the Kitajenko recording with a new PentaTone one featuring sister pianists Mari Kodama and Momo Kodama – themselves a highly accomplished pair – is even more intriguing. This SACD offers versions for piano duo of excerpts from all three Tchaikovsky ballets. There are five movements from Sleeping Beauty as arranged by a very young Sergei Rachmaninoff; nine from The Nutcracker in an arrangement by Anton Arensky; and two separate sets of three movements each from Swan Lake, one by Claude Debussy that contains many hints of Debussy’s own music as well as Tchaikovsky’s, and one by Eduard Langer (1835-1905) – the least-known of the arrangers here, but clearly a composer with considerable affinity for Tchaikovsky and a strong sense of compositional craft. Indeed, there is a puzzle associated with Langer in this recording: he actually arranged six Swan Lake pieces for piano duo, and there is no discernible reason for omitting three of them (the recording runs just 63 minutes and there would have been plenty of room for the missing ones). Aside from that omission, there is little to which to take exception here. The playing is uniformly excellent, the pianists cooperating attentively and elegantly and handing off to each other fluidly as the music requires. The music itself is scarcely best heard in this form – the arrangements, while respectable or better, nevertheless pale before the orchestral versions of the ballets. However, there are some surprisingly revelatory elements here that make the two-piano arrangements well worth hearing. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which a listener might expect to be among the least effective pieces because of the lack of a celesta, is in fact one of the best, with Arensky’s arrangement making the piano sound very definitely celesta-like. Debussy’s way with the Danse espagnole and Danse napolitaine from Swan Lake is also notable. All the arrangements are, at the very least, skillful and highly professional, and if they will surely never supplant the orchestral form of this music, they are highly interesting to hear, and they shed some new light on works that have been played so often in their usual form that they are always at risk of becoming over-familiar.

     There is also something unusual in a pair of newly released recordings of Bruckner symphonies conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No. 2 on ATMA Classique and No. 3 on Profil. These are, in a sense, readings by two different Nézet-Séguins: No. 3 was recorded in 2008, No. 2 in 2015, and when a conductor is now only 41 years old, performances seven years apart can represent a significant amount of growth and rethinking. But one thing that is unusual in this pair is that – aside from the significantly superior , warm and elegant sound of the larger Staatskapelle Dresden when compared with the plucky but comparatively thin Orchestre Métropolitain – the two readings are very similar at the core. Bruckner, after all, had both these symphonies in hand when he visited Richard Wagner in 1873 and asked the man he idolized to allow one of them to be dedicated to him. The works are thus deeply similar even though their differences stand out starkly – or at least they are deeply similar when a conductor uses the original, 1873 version of No. 3. And that is something else unusual in these releases, because that version, still infrequently heard, is the one that Nézet-Séguin conducts. Both of these are robust readings, strongly paced and, in the case of No. 3, decidedly on the rapid side – presenting a challenge to the Dresden players, to which they rise admirably. Nézet-Séguin obviously knows where the Wagner quotations are in No. 3, and listeners familiar with Wagner will certainly hear them, but there is no dwelling on them and no attempt to make them a greater part of the symphony’s structure than they are: Bruckner was able to remove them in later versions of the work because they are, to a certain extent, add-ons rather than integral elements of the symphony. The huge scale of this first version of No. 3 poses no apparent difficulty to Nézet-Séguin, who shapes the work strongly and prevents its occasional meandering and bloat from overtaking its essentially well-planned scope. This is a significantly better performance than the one released in 2014 on ATMA Classique, in which Nézet-Séguin led the Orchestre Métropolitain through this version of the symphony in a rather frenetic 67 minutes. This time the work lasts five minutes longer and seems altogether better thought out. Bruckner’s later versions of the symphony are tighter as well as shorter, but even though this one sprawls, Nézet-Séguin does a good job here of keeping it under control. And the Staatskapelle Dresden, which actually gave the first performance of this version of the symphony as recently as 1946 (with entirely different players, of course), seems thoroughly at home here and delivers the sort of traditional cathedral-like sound that seems to fit Bruckner the organist so well. Certainly the audience in this live recording seems duly appreciative, although everyone seems a bit stunned when the symphony simply stops – the over-abrupt ending here is not one of Bruckner’s more-inspired conclusions.

     The recording of No. 2 is also from a live performance, in Montreal rather than Dresden, and the sonic environment here is quite different from that in No. 3. The overall sound of the symphony is somewhat more modern: the Schubertian elements of Bruckner have been more frequently brought to the fore in recent performances, and it no longer seems necessary to focus always on the gigantism of his full-orchestra passages – more-delicate, more-thinly-scored sections come through just as well. The smaller orchestra here fits this approach well, and there is a cleanness of sound in this reading that is pleasantly bracing. This symphony ended up without a dedication after Wagner chose No. 3 as the one to bear his name – and No. 2 is certainly a less-compelling work than the original version of No. 3, although comparisons between these two recordings should not be attempted too precisely: Nézet-Séguin uses the Haas composite version of No. 2, which is based on the 1877 revision but contains elements from the 1872 original, so listeners are not hearing the urtext of both symphonies. What they are hearing is a young conductor with a strong sense of the propulsiveness as well as the massive elements of Bruckner, a conductor not afraid to let the symphonies unfold, at times, with greater forward motion than they usually receive. Neither of these readings is as thoroughly convincing as, say, those in the recent recordings by Mario Venzago, who also used different orchestras for different symphonies – but in his case did so to try to reflect the character of the music, not simply because different ensembles and recording companies were available. But Nézet-Séguin has real style, and in this pair of Bruckner symphonies he shows considerable understanding of Bruckner’s worldview and is able to communicate the works’ scale effectively to two very different audiences. The result is a pair of very different but equally first-rate performances.

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