November 02, 2023


Tchaikovsky/John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Alan Cumming, narrator; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Earl Wild: Fantasy on Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”; Gershwin: Three Preludes; Wild/Rachmaninoff: Seven Songs. John Wilson, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

     It is no secret that Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is as packed with gorgeous music as it is lacking in drama: the entire story takes place in the first act, and the second is nothing but a series of “characteristic dances,” which practically ooze charm but advance the plot not a whit. In fact, the composer himself – in connection with the debut of his last ballet on the same double bill as his last opera, Iolanta – opined that the opera was a far better work. Although the première of The Nutcracker  was not a success, history has shown Tchaikovsky, who was often unaware of the quality of his own genius, to be incorrect in his estimation – yet the fact remains that The Nutcracker sounds wonderful but plays poorly on stage, no matter how clever set designers have  become in visualizing it. Composer/conductor John Mauceri thinks he has an answer to this: re-create the tale of Tchaikovsky’s ballet as a kind of mashup between what the composer created and the 1816 story on which it was based, Nußknacker und Mausekönig by E.T.A. Hoffmann – which Tchaikovsky knew not in the original version but through an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père. Hoffmann, himself a composer as well as a highly influential early Romantic author – whose death from syphilis at age 44 ended his production of very distinct and often eerie tales – made Nußknacker und Mausekönig into a tale-within-a-tale and a sometimes chilling, sometimes oddly amusing good-vs.-evil story. Seeking dramatic impact and narrative continuity, Mauceri returns to Hoffmann’s original, tears apart and abridges and rearranges the music that Tchaikovsky composed for the ballet, adds bits of other Tchaikovsky music to carry the story along, and knits the whole together with the help of excellent narration by Alan Cumming. And that, in a nutshell (so to speak), is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, now available from Toccata Classics in its world première recording.

     Listening to this carefully massaged hodgpodge requires more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief, because Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker and its ever-popular suite (which actually had its première nine months before the ballet’s first staging) is so familiar that hearing it in snippets, and out of the order in which it apperars either in the suite or in the ballet, is jarring; it is also the only music that sounds as if it goes with the story that Mauceri has put together and that Cumming narrates with considerable elegance and charm. Mauceri makes the tale as much about Drosselmeyer as about the Stahlbaums: indeed, he gives this work the subtitle, The Clockmaker’s Tale. But Mauceri keeps this as a Nuremberg narrative, its first part set in the year 1416 and explaining the “back story” that led to the creation of the prince-turned-nutcracker; its second part set in 1816 and retelling a skewed version of most of the events in Tchaikovsky’s ballet; and its short conclusion designated “1834-today” and attempting to carry vestiges of the fairy-tale world into our modern one. This is scarcely an unalloyed success, even though Mauceri has been careful to keep some of the original music from The Nutcracker – usually repurposed – while expanding the aural world to include bits of The Snow Maiden, a couple of movements from the orchestral suites, a tidbit or two from Tchaikovsky’s forays into Shakespearean realms (Hamlet and The Tempest), and so forth. Mauceri directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra skillfully throughout, and the musicians do a fine job in what is essentially a subsidiary role beneath the narration. And that is the crux of what makes this reimagined version of The Nutcracker work – or fail to work. Here the emphasis is strongly on the story, with the music used in illustrative mode – while in Tchaikovsky’s original, everything is about the music, which more-or-less-successfully drags along the inadequacies of the plot. It is pretty much impossible to hear this adaptation without noticing what music is missing; but to the extent that listeners can set aside their expectations of Tchaikovsky’s ballet and consider Mauceri’s work to be a new take on an old story, there is a lot to enjoy here – even though there is no way that this set of modifications will have the staying power of Tchaikovsky’s original. That is, when all is set and done, a work of genius; this is a work of always workmanlike, often clever adaptation. It never sparkles as The Nutcracker does, but it provides a fresh way of considering the ballet’s events – and the underlying ones of a story that Tchaikovsky never had the opportunity to tell.

     Earl Wild’s numerous transcriptions of jazz and classical works were never intended to re-tell or reimagine the originals, but rather to bring out some aspects of them on the piano that Wild – a fine pianist – believed not to have been fully realized in the original music. On a new AVIE disc, John Wilson does an excellent job of presenting several of these rethinkings by Wild (1915-2010) – and if nothing here will supplant the originals that Wild transcribed, nothing here is at odds with them, either. Wild essentially shines a different sort of light on these Gershwin and Rachmaninoff pieces – and one that is convincing in its own way, which just happens not to be the composers’ original one. The major work on the CD is Wild’s extended fantasy on Porgy and Bess, which moves from a very brief few measures of introduction to thoroughly jazz-imbued realizations and rearrangements of Jasbo Brown Blues, Summertime, Oh I Can’t Sit Down, My Man’s Gone Now, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Buzzard Song, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Bess You Is My Woman, There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York, and Oh Lawd I’m on My Way. Wild tosses in pianistic flourishes aplenty, but he stays true to the basic themes, pacing and harmonies of each element of this fantasy. The settings of the slower and more emotional elements are a tad less successful than those of the speedier portions of the opera, since Wild’s elaborations of the musical lines in Summertime, My Man’s Gone Now and elsewhere seem a bit tacked-on – while his additions and exaggerations in numbers such as I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ and It Ain’t Necessarily So just seem like natural extensions of Gershwin’s originals. The fantasy as a whole is somewhat disconnected – Wild did not create elaborate transitions between its sections, making it essentially a suite. That appears to be just fine with Wilson, who plays each individual part attentively and then moves on to the next with equal aplomb. The whole work is as much a pianistic showpiece for the 20th century as Liszt’s opera transcriptions and fantasies were for the 19th. Wilson also does a fine job presenting Gershwin’s 1926 set of Three Preludes, showcasing the jazz elements throughout and handling the ebullient third prelude with an especially fine sense of style and excellent concluding flourish. Standing in interesting contrast to the Gershwin material are Wild’s arrangements of seven songs from various cycles by Rachmaninoff. These do not quite work as “songs without words,” never having been intended to be wordless, but all of them have harmonic beauty and in many cases feature the sweeping Romantic emotionalism so typical of the composer. There are some real pianistic challenges here, notably in Floods of Spring and The Little Island, both of which require delicate handling of themes emerging from unceasing note cascades. Wilson has not the slightest misstep in these or, indeed, in any of these songs. The Wild arrangements are somewhat on the unassuming side despite the virtuosity they require. What Wilson does so well is to probe the inherent musicality of Wild’s transcriptions and of the underlying Rachmaninoff material, so that these works come across as wholly satisfying even if none of them is particularly consequential. Wilson’s realizations of Wild’s rethinkings of Gershwin and Rachmaninoff are fine examples of cross-pollination not only between composer and arranger but also between two pianists of consummate skill.

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