Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker
For one thing is certain, The Nutcracker is a ballet about Christmas which has become associated with Christmas almost since it was first premiered. Based on an adaption of a Hoffmann story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", it was premiered in St Petersburg in 1892. The initial reaction was poor and it only gained some popularity when Tchaikovsky had extracts of it performed. The ballet really took off after the Bolshevik Revolution when it was performed many times in Western Europe. It has been performed annually, at Christmas, in England since 1952 and in America since 1960.
Now I am not a great fan of ballet. I have sat through several performances of various ballets, mostly Tchaikovsky, and frankly been rather bored. But The Nutcracker is something different. It is the only complete ballet where, for me anyway, the music stands on its own. Sure, other ballets have pieces where there is a stand-alone, but in The Nutcracker it is virtually the whole thing. For instance, the "Trepak", the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the "March" are all melodies which have become familiar through association. And yet, unusually perhaps for a ballet, The Nutcracker contains a number of innovative melodies and advanced harmonies. These are often overlooked given the simplicity of the tale and the popularity of the music.
One innovation which is frequently remarked upon is the use of a musical instrument called a celesta - a sort of cross between a piano and a glockenspiel. Tchaikovsky discovered this instrument during a trip to Paris and brought one back, determined to find a use for it in one of his works. And so he did. The distinctive, sweet tinkling sound of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is the celesta, and though it featured in some of Tchaikovsky's other works, it was never more successfully used than here.
The Nutcracker also has the distinction of being probably the first true record album, issued in a box set of 78 rpm's way back in 1909. Since then there have been numerous recordings of it. At near on 90 minutes long, it used to be an ideal fit for a double vinyl, and these days it is more often than not released as a double CD. This performance by the Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle is one of the most up-to-date complete versions available, recorded in 2009 and issued on EMI Classics. Unlike many of Rattle's other performances, this one brims with the life and vitality that surely Tchaikovsky always intended. So, if you want to hear a classic ballet in all its glory, I can recommend this without hesitation.
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