Rattle has taken his 20th century expertise and brilliantly applied it to Tchaikovsky.
Charlotte Gardner 2010
Simon Rattle has produced a conception-buster of a disc here. As a general rule, The Nutcracker feels like the comfort blanket of the ballet repertoire: a much-loved, known quantity of solid, 19th century sumptous prettiness. However, Rattle has taken his expertise in early 20th century music and brilliantly applied it backwards to Tchaikovsky. The result is enlightening. You clearly hear how Act I inspired Stravinsky when writing Petrushka, and there's also more than a whisper of Ravel in the overall tone of bright, nostalgic modernity.
The Nutcracker's action is set on Christmas Eve, when Clara is given a nutcracker toy by her mysterious godfather. At midnight the toy comes alive. After Clara helps him to conquor the evil Mouse King in battle, he turns into a prince and leads her to the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy treats them to a series of fantastic dances. These dances make up one of the few balletic divertissements (diversions from the main plot) that is indisputably integral to the evenings enjoyment, rather than the cue for non-hardcore ballet fans to start clock-watching. The reason is that they include many of the most memorable and popular pieces in the whole classical canon, such as Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It's so infectiously, festively fun that even the Berlin Philharmoniker, famed more for their rich, smooth perfection than for letting their hair down, has fallen into party mode, albeit of the cocktail rather than the student shin-dig variety. The Battle crackles brightly with military tension, half-aware that the most deadly weapon will turn out to be a thrown slipper. Later, in the smouldering coffee dance, the clarinet langourously rises and snakes over the orchestra like an exotic swirl of steam rising up from the dark spiciness of the cup beneath.
The recording is released in three editions. Whilst the single-CD edition contains musical highlights, this performance is worth owning in full. Of the two double-CD, complete-work options, there is a Standard Edition or an Experience Edition, the latter of which includes a larger hardback book, greater online content, and a free 24-hour pass to the Berlin Philharmoniker's online concert hall.