Kitajenko at the ballet. A really dull Nutcracker coupled with a really terrific Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss
OK, let me open up my Thesaurus and let's get this over with. Kitajenko's Nutcracker is simply unnecessary - lifeless, mundane, dull, unimaginative, long and boring. After recording all the Tchaikovsky symphonies for Oehms Classics, I suppose someone thought he should do the Nutcracker too. That ought to be a money-maker - collectors will want to complete their collections and will just have to buy it, right? I was enticed not because I've collected all of the symphony recordings (I haven't), but because I have heard Kitajenko do some good things in the past. And this was offered at a low price. And look at that wonderful cover art!
Reading in the booklet, I found it amusing that Oehms Classics states Kitajenko's set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies "is being treated as a reference recording". Uh-hem. Don't they wish. I have heard a couple of them, and I will admit they're better than this Nutcracker. But a "reference"?
But I digress...
The Nutcracker is one of my favorite of all of Tchaikovsky's creations. I don't categorize it as "Christmas" music, and indeed, I listen to it year round - as evidenced by this review, written in June. The piece presents a real challenge for record producers. It's just too long to fit onto one CD (usually - Jarvi and Gergiev play it fast enough to manage it; and more recently, Jurowski on Pentatone does too.) and it becomes very short measure to spread out onto two. So decisions must be made as to timings, pricing and couplings/fillers. In this case, tempos are SO slow, one can only conclude the producers wanted to stretch this out to better fill up two CDs. And I'm dismayed Kitajenko agreed. There really is no musical justification for it.
I find it fascinating how many Russian conductors make Russian music sound so completely UN-Russian. Vasily Petrenko's recent survey of the 3 famous Stravinsky ballets is a good example. (See my review elsewhere on this bog.) Kitajenko's Nutcracker is another. It's not just the slow tempos (which are really slow). It's not just the smooth, lifeless recording (which lacks sparkle). It's not just the absence of enthusiasm from the orchestra (who are really snoozing through this). Yes, it's all of those things. But really, it's the essence of the score which is completely missing. It's the absence of imagination. Or wonderment. Or the spirit of the dance. Or even a child's delight at the holidays. I'm curious if Mr. Kitajenko really thinks his recording of this ballet would actually inspire anyone to choreograph it? Or want to dance to it? I'm not a dancer, but trying to listen to this, I just wanted to go read a book instead.
Getting into greater detail: After a rather deliberate Overture, the guests begin leisurely strolling in, and one realizes this isn't a holiday party at all, it's a wake! The March which follows is so unimaginably slow (it plods on for an eternal 3 minutes), it must be the arrival of the pallbearers.
(A quick aside here...upon hearing this incredibly slow tempo for the March, I initially perked up for a moment in anticipation that maybe - for once - we would get to hear the bassoons' 16th-note passages in the second half. (They play double 16th-notes along with the cello/bass pizzicatos during the recapitulation.) This little march is normally played so fast, no bassoonist in the world could manage to double-tongue those 16th-notes. Could it be Kitajenko noticed that little detail and played it at this tempo to allow his bassoonists to deliver it up for us? Nope, not a chance. The bassoons are completely buried in the mix, unnoticed, unheard, and no one cared whether they played the notes or not. Incidentally, the tempo indication in the score for it is Tempo di Marcia Viva.)
So Christmas Eve drags on uneventfully, with no festivity or much interest. No one is having fun. No one notices the Christmas tree has been adorned. And I'm getting sleepy. But surely, the Mouse Battle will spark some life and drama into the evening, right? Again - nope, not a chance. It's simply more symphonic seriousness. And slow tempos continue to weigh it down. By the time we get to the Characteristic Dances, I've lost all hope. Tempos have picked up a bit, but there is no characterization to them. Just more of the same and it's much too serious.
I carp on the tempos for a reason. While timings aren't everything, the lack of enthusiasm that comes with them is a real problem. Just for fun, let's make a quick comparison with two other recent recordings: Neeme Jarvi on Chandos (2014) and Jurowski on Pentatone (2019) - both SACD.
Act One (including the Overture): Jarvi - 43'; Jurowski - 45'; Kitajenko - a whopping 51 minutes!
Act Two: Jarvi: 41'; Jurowski - 40'; Kitajenko - 46'!
I know, I know...I highly criticized Neeme Jarvi's reading for being too fast. And it is. It is absurdly fast. He's in such a hurry to get it over with, the orchestra scrambles to keep up and no one on the planet could possibly dance to it. But at least it has some life. And energy. And the orchestra is definitely awake! It kept me on the edge of my seat just to hear if the orchestra could manage to keep up with him and play all the notes at those speeds. (Amazingly they do and they can, for the most part.) It is a frenzied whirlwind from beginning to end, completely devoid of charm. And as a musical experience, it is just as wrong as Kitajenko's - in opposite ways.
But Jurowski is much more sensibly paced - fast enough to keep the momentum and create musical involvement, yet not rushed off its feet. And the difference in timings is very telling.
Is Tchaikovsky's beloved Nutcracker really that difficult to pull off? Every community ballet orchestra in the world can play it and delight their audiences year after year. So why is it so difficult to find a good recording of it? Will I ever be happy? Oh certainly. I've been happy for a long, long time - before any of these newcomers gave it a whirl. Any time I want a glorious Nutcracker, I turn to either of Antal Dorati's recordings (Mercury and Philips), or Rodzinski's incomparable Westminster recording (which still sounds amazingly good for its age), or for the digital era, Ozawa in Boston (DG).
The Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne plays well. None of this is their fault. But that alone can't salvage what is yet another irrelevant Nutcracker, destined to a life of obscurity collecting dust on the shelf. But wait! There's something more here.
This 2-CD set has a coupling. And it is marvelous. I can't begin to explain what happened, but miraculously everyone came to life and recorded an absolutely wonderful Stravinsky/Tchaikovsky Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss. All of the charm and characterization missing in Nutcracker is vividly displayed here. Even the recorded sound has gained some life, with a little more sparkle, color and presence. It sounds like a different body of musicians. And, frankly, I was relieved to hear that Kitajenko really can lead an orchestra with inspiration and a creative spark. It is regrettable they didn't record the entire ballet. There was plenty of room on the discs for all of it.
Finally, it appears this 2-fer is priced as a single. (I picked it up for just $12!) Therefore it's a pretty good deal. Is it worth if for the Stravinsky alone? I think so. It really is that good. But you have been warned: don't expect the same from the main feature. It will sorely disappoint.