August 05, 2010


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1; Capriccio Italien. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Christoph Poppen. Oehms. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete). Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Maninov. RPO. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     The tendency to focus on the dour in Tchaikovsky’s output, notably the last three symphonies, sometimes obscures the many works he wrote in which the gorgeous tunes and beautiful flow of the music are predominant. Indeed, for a long time, the first three symphonies were rarely played at all, as if they were not only lesser works than the last three but also somehow out of keeping with the popular image of the troubled composer. Happily, that situation has changed, and recordings of the earlier symphonies are now appearing from more conductors – although some, such as Christoph Poppen, seem not to have thought much about the works before performing them. Poppen’s recording of Symphony No. 1, a live performance from 2007, is very well played and features a tremendously exciting finale. But the whole thing does not sound very Tchaikovskian. Poppen is smart enough to play the music straight – none of the unmarked, unnecessary and irritating slowdowns and speedups that some conductors seem to feel Tchaikovsky requires for full effect – but there is little warmth or emotional depth in his reading. The symphony is called “Winter Dreams,” but there is nothing dreamlike (or dreamy) about it here: it is quite matter-of-fact. The very start of the work, for instance, can sound like the entry into a magical landscape akin to the much later snow-covered one of The Nutcracker. Here it simply sounds mundane. The clarity of the strings of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie comes at the expense of warmth, and Poppen’s tempos – usually just a touch on the fast side – keep everything moving without allowing much chance for listeners to sit back and revel in the lovely sounds and scenes that Tchaikovsky evokes. The wistfulness of the slow movement, for example, is entirely lacking. The thrilling finale caps the performance very effectively indeed, but it does nothing to downplay the rather overdone bombast that the young Tchaikovsky brought to this movement – indeed, Poppen almost revels in something approaching vulgarity. The performance is fun to experience but not likely to make listeners unfamiliar with the music want to hear it often again. Capriccio Italien – another live recording, this one from 2009 – gets similar treatment and handles it better. This is, after all, a celebratory piece with little formal structure, and it comes across well as a throw-caution-to-the-winds showpiece for the orchestra’s musicians. This is an unsubtle performance – but Capriccio Italien does not require subtlety.

     The Nutcracker can benefit from it, though. What it gets instead in the Royal Philharmonic recording on the orchestra’s own label is a “stage reading,” one that would work well for a performance of the ballet but does not fully hold listeners’ interest from a concert perspective. David Maninov, who specialized in conducting ballet, made this recording in 1995, shortly before his death. It features tempos that are just slightly on the deliberate side, very even rhythms (which would be easy for dancers to follow), and a fairly superficial handling of the music – in the sense that little attempt is made to probe what depths the score contains. The fact that it does not contain many is a well-known weakness, but it is one that the best conductors can overcome by taking a more symphonic approach to Drosselmeyer’s entry, the magic-spell music and the battle in Act I; by broadening the Waltz of the Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers into grand Romantic scenes; and by focusing in Act II on the piquancy of rhythm and orchestration in the characteristic dances, such as the tea, trepak and mirlitons displays. Maninov does none of this: he proceeds from number to number effectively enough, producing a good-natured performance without a lot of character, but the magic is missing. And magic is what this ballet is all about. As effective as Maninov’s reading would likely have been when danced, it is only so-so for listening – pleasant enough, to be sure, but ultimately rather undistinguished.

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