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An Overlooked Gem: Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky Suites

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Jeremy Lee writes

The musical world is often a funny place where great music is neglected in favor of the same old warhorses that are mentioned over and over again.  Symphonies?  Beethoven’s 5th and 9th, Mozart’s 40th, Tchaikovsky’s 6th.  Concertos?  Tchaikovsky’s First, Rachmaninov’s Second and Third, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerti.  Piano sonatas?  Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt.  Gems like Ives’ Symphony No. 2, Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano, Medtner’s Piano Quintet, Poulenc’s Piano Concerto, etc. don’t stand a chance.

And I’m not only talking about the pieces–recordings suffer the same fate.  Jochum in Carmina Burana, Klemperer in the Brahms Requiem, Bernstein in Mahler 5.  But nobody seems to care for Blomstedt’s, Sinopoli’s or Mackerras’.

But the most head-scratching examples are of famous pieces conducted by famous conductors that are spectacularly done–up there with the greatest–but somehow manages to be long neglected.  An example that immediately comes to mind is Karajan’s Das Lied.  A starry vocal cast and some extremely splendid playing, singing and interpretation does little to save it from obscurity.  Even when the entire Das Lied market is overshadowed by Klemperer’s recording, Karajan’s deserves better.

This brings me to today’s review, of Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky ballet suites, a classic and puzzling example of recording neglect.  Bernstein is not a hidden talent and nor do the Tchaikovsky suites occupy a subfusc, uncared-for corner of the classical repertoire.  But Google “Bernstein Tchaikovsky Suites” and tell me why is it that seemingly nobody has ever bothered to give it a proper review, let alone recommendation?

Right, the recording.  If it were bad, its neglect would be understandable, but it’s simply marvelous, and I think the Nutcracker Suite, recorded in 1960, has never been bettered.  The playing is absolutely spot-on (save for a celesta in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy that sounds like a cross between a marimba and a glockenspiel), and the sonics are great–not always the case with Bernstein’s New York recordings for Sony.  However the interpretation is tantamount, and Bernstein gives us what is in my opinion the liveliest Nutcracker Suite I’ve heard.  The Overture is exceptionally light and breezy, while the final Waltz is as idiomatic and grand as it could ever be.  Best of all is the Trepak, which starts at a very fast speed and somehow still manages to accelerate gradually to the very final bar, with all the players (successfully) hanging on for their dear lives.  Maybe it’s a bit over-the-top, but this is Bernstein after all, and at any rate it’s certainly one of the most exhilarating Trepaks on disc.  Overall Bernstein captures the wide-eyed innocence and fantasy of the piece like no other version, and for that alone this Nutcracker has to be ranked as one of the best readings of this work on disc.

Recorded in 1969, Swan Lake is also splendid, with an extremely soulful Scène (the often obscured chromatic string frissons are brought to the fore here) that soars to a great climax, and as would be expected the dance numbers (coda of act II, the Danse hongroise, espagnole, napolitaine and the Mazurka of Act III) are most physical and vivacious (the cornet solo in Danse napolitaine is characterfully played by William Vacchiano).  Two dances, the Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty and the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, both spectacularly done, round off this highly desirable disc whose raison d’être, at least to me, is that absolutely fantastic Nutcracker (a work that I admittedly can’t get enough of).  And given the substantial, equally marvelous fillers, this unjustly neglected disc by a great conductor and orchestra in their prime deserves a place in every collection.

Details

  • Album name:  Tchaikovsky:  The Nutcracker (Ballet Suite);  Swan Lake (excerpts);  Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty;  Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
  • Performers:  Leonard Bernstein (conductor);  New York Philharmonic
  • Label:  Sony Bernstein Century SMK 63162
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  75:28
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “An Overlooked Gem: Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky Suites

  1. Pingback: The Only Christmas Album You’ll Ever Need | Top Ear

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