Saturday Soundtrack # 11
The Nutcracker (complete), Mariss Jansons conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI Classics CDQB 7 54649 2, two disc set, released 1992.
If there is a soundtrack for this season, surely it’s the music from the ballet The Nutcracker. Sure, I could have picked the soundtrack from some Christmas-y film, but truth is there are few if any of them that have music worth discussing.
So we’ll go with the famous story of the little girl, the dream, the battle between the Nutcracker soldiers and the Mice and all. What’s that? Ballet music isn’t a soundtrack, you say? Sure it is, it’s the music that goes with a story, just like the music that goes with a film, which is also a story.
There are many, many recordings of the Nutcracker. It’s been available in one format or another from 78 rpm records to CD and performances on DVD. Many of those recordings are good, and the buyer of the music – and you’ll want to buy it unless you’re satisfied with hearing the same few bits of it on the radio over and over – will have to make some choices.
The first choice is how much Nutcracker do you want? Recordings come pretty much in one of two ways, the Nutcracker Suite or the Complete Nutcracker. The former has all the catchy tunes you’ve heard before and honestly, if the only thing you’re going to do with the recording is take it out once a year and put it into a music mix to play during the Christmas party, the Suite will do just fine. Most people have only heard the Suite, and have an image only of the scampering mice and the nutcracker soldiers. Well, there’s a lot more to the Nutcracker than that 23-25 minute suite. A recording of the complete ballet will run about three times that length. The recording shown here, a personal favorite, is on two discs with a total time of about 86 minutes. So with the complete music to the ballet, there’s a lot more music. Music, let us not forget, by Tchaikovsky.
The second choice is do you want other music along for the ride? Personally, I don’t. I want to put these discs on and hear The Nutcracker, not that and some other suite or orchestral bit. If you decided to buy the Nutcracker Suite, you pretty much can’t avoid getting other music along with it, and then if you want to hear just the piece, you’ll have to fiddle with your player’s programming controls, or make a custom playlist. But there are recordings of the complete music to the ballet, like this one, with nothing else. It’s one of the reasons I like this particular recording but not the primary one. That would be the performance itself. Mariss Jansons brings out the best from the London Phil in this recording, the pacing and exuberance bring a freshness to the music you’ll appreciate if you listen to this work more than once or twice a year. This 1991 recording, released the following year, is clean and clear, avoiding brightness (a slightly shrill quality) and murkiness, it’s well-balanced. What I’m trying to say is it sounds good.
So pour yourself a glass of eggnog, perhaps spiked with your favorite addition and a sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon, put the complete Nutcracker in the player, sit back and enjoy. There’s a lot more to this music than dancing mice.