Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (complete ballet)
Dorati (1976, Concertgebouw/Philips) and Ozawa (1990, Boston/DG) lead the pack of modern recordings. Oh I know, given that these originated 30 and 40+ years ago, respectively (can they really be that old by now?!), they no longer technically qualify as "modern"! But no other recording since has bettered either of them - not even close. Not for performances, precision of playing, or for recorded sound. So they shall remain my "modern" recommendations.
As for "classics", there are also just two: Dorati again (1962, LSO/Mercury) and Rodzinski (1958, Royal Philharmonic/Westminster). The former is self-recommending, even if its sound on CD is just slightly rough (although slightly better on the rare SACD). The latter was remastered and released by DG in 2001. And it is stunning. It is so full of color and imaginative touches, one hears this glorious score with new ears - as if for the very first time. And to cite one example of the sublime, just listen to the muted strings in the Arabian Dance (tr. 14). Oh my goodness, I don't believe I have ever heard such ravishing, creamy string sound - dark, rich, wooden - on any recording, ever.
All four recordings provide amazing good sound (especially for their age) and performances which are full of life, wonder, imagination, inspiration and individuality. Not for an instant, in any of these, is there even a hint of the routine or a lack of spontaneity. Each orchestra responds with an involvement, precision and musicality rarely heard today. And, notably, each remains faithful to the letter of the score, which has definitely not been the case in recent decades, where we witness too many conductors taking all kinds of liberties with it. Among my favorites here, only DG for Ozawa raises a concern with its omission of the gunshot in the Mouse Battle scene. The orchestra pauses for several seconds, but the engineers failed to splice in the sound of a gunshot. And it's not corrected even on subsequent reissues! Oh well. One smiles (or shakes his head at the blunder) and moves on to the glories that follow.
Britten Ceremony of Carols
I have three favorites of this uniquely, wonderful piece - two sung by adults and just one by a youth choir. As with Messiah (below), I turn to the Robert Shaw Chorale. His classic, 1963 RCA is the standard by which all others are judged. It's a pity the recording show its age with some overload distortion on climaxes. But one can listen through it and still enjoy the fervent singing, rich acoustic and fabulous harpist. It is available rather hidden away within a 1994, RCA, 3-CD compilation, "Christmas With the Robert Shaw Chorale".
For superlative recorded sound and equally fabulous singing, The Philadelphia Singers, conducted by Michael Korn, (1988, RCA), cannot be bettered. Along with the clear sound in a superbly atmospheric acoustic, what makes this set irresistible is the ravishing soprano of Benita Valente in the solo sections. Angelic indeed.
My favorite recording from a youth choir comes from The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow, on a splendid all-Britten program on Conifer Classics (1996). As with the Philadelphia Singers, this one also features beautiful recorded sound, atmospheric and clear. This performance is fresh, with boundless energy. The professional, highly accomplished singing from this group of youngsters is astonishing. Not to be missed.
I generally prefer "modern" performance standards of this work, as opposed to those specializing in period performance. Not only that, I am partial to full-throated, full-vibrato American choirs! Two are exemplary - the classic 1966 Robert Shaw Chorale and the 1981 Musica Sacra, both on RCA. Both have appeared in "highlights" and complete versions over the years. Robert Shaw's highlights sound fabulous on RCA's 1988 budget Victrola series - full-bodied and boisterous. The complete set was newly remastered for a 2004 "Classic Library" 2-fer. As to Musica Sacra, their highlights disc sounds splendid on the 1990 Silver Seal budget release. However, their complete recording was disastrously ruined in RCA's 1999 "Dolby Surround" release in the "High Performance" series. It is riddled with distortion all through. It sounds almost as if a shorted-out (or loose?) cable was emitting static into the digital converter during the mastering process. I really have no idea what went wrong, but it's devastating - especially since it is completely absent in the Silver Seal highlights, proving it was not inherent in the original master tapes, but an engineering/production disaster. Why this was never corrected is a travesty.
A fascinating alternative is Solti in Chicago (1984 Decca), sounding not at all like his usual fiery self. Solti's is cherished for its lightness of touch, clarity of textures, precision of choral execution, sweet outpouring of musical expression, sensible tempi and superlative recorded sound.
However, a newcomer this year, from Penatone, has captured my interest. While it's not SACD (tsk, tsk), I found the sound on this CD to be perfectly fine (although, do I hear some distortion here and there?). All involved are "newcomers" to my collection: Justin Doyle leading the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin and Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. (I can't translate all that and the booklet is no help.) It is the fresh and original interpretation which commands one's attention, with a fascinating combination of period-practice(-ish) playing in the orchestra, with a bit more full-bodied, modern singing techniques from the choir (yet still light and airy), and with full, vibrato-rich soloists. Of note, the alto solo part is sung here by a countertenor, and the soprano takes some liberties with ornamentation, and even some added flourishes which take her up to high Bbs in Rejoice! (I loved it, actually.) Pentatone's production itself is odd, though; the booklet is comprised of a very lengthy, boring, fictitious, imaginary 21st-Century "interview" between Handel and his lyricist. This gibberish goes on for 9 pages. And while it eventually does get around to providing the lyrics, there is not a word about the performers, ensembles or conductor. Pentatone seems to have taken a new, rather wayward direction during the past couple of years - not only with booklet productions like this (which leave one scratching one's head), but with arbitrary decisions regarding SACD vs CD-only releases. It's all very odd coming from a label once regarded as being of the highest quality. However, I greatly enjoyed this performance of Messiah. So all is forgiven - this time.