Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has always been one of my favorite pieces of classical music, and come December, I'm ready to listen to the best recording of the 1892 ballet. Wait...which recording is that?
There's no one perfect Nutcracker, I've found — but there is a Nutcracker for every mood. Recently, I listened to nine leading recordings of the complete ballet (once you know the full score, going back to the suite is like lopping the edges off your wide-screen TV). Here's my guide to help you decide which Nutcracker is for you.
To learn more about this beloved ballet, listen to Alison Young's feature about Tchaikovsky's masterpiece.
For the movie fan
Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI/Warner Classics)
This is the John Williams of Nutcracker recordings: sweeping, dramatic, and fast-paced with close attention to detail. The battle scenes are genuinely thrilling, and the dance of the snowflakes is uniquely affecting — buoyed by spare, lucid choral work. When you're ready to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and relish in the action, cue this recording.
For the sweet tooth
Semyon Bychkov conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Philips)
Under the baton of Bychkov, the Berlin band turn light and airy. The score's sturm und drang is softened in favor of singing strings and whimsical woodwinds. At points the recording gets a little too soft: the Sugar Plum Fairy traipses so lightly on the celesta that she barely dusts its keys. Still, this is the Nutcracker to turn to when you're looking to soundtrack your family cookie bake.
For the dancer
Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony (DG)
The Nutcracker is a dance, after all, and Ozawa doesn't forget that: the BSO bounces its way through the ballet, keeping strict tempo even during the Grand Pas de Deux. When you're ready to roll back the rug and spin across the floor, invite Maestro Ozawa to lift his baton.
For the Russophile
Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra (Philips)
This recording was made in Tchaikovsky's native land, and boy, do you know it: during the Grand scene fantastique, it sounds like the Golden Gate of Vladimir is opening. Gergiev's tempos are, to put it charitably, brisk: the complete ballet fits on one CD, which is convenient for listeners but not for those poor little polichinelles who have to flounce across the stage at the speed of sound.
For the lover
Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra (Mariinsky)
18 years after his Kirov recording, the controversial Russian conductor returned to the Land of the Sweets to record The Nutcracker in the very hall where the ballet had its 1892 premiere. This impeccably engineered recording runs with the power and finesse of a Marussia, stormy and sexy. If you're looking for a Nutcracker to play in your velvet-walled seduction chamber ('tis the season and all), this is the way to go.
For the traditionalist
Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony (Mercury)
This longtime standby, a particular favorite of dancers, has defined the sound of The Nutcracker for generations. The "Mercury Living Presence" engineering holds up well over 50 years after it was recorded in 1962, and its pleasing toy-like ambience makes it an especially appropriate choice for family listening. (This was Dorati's second recording of The Nutcracker; his first, no longer available, was with the Minneapolis Symphony.) One quirk: Dorati tends to rush towards the ends of his dances, like a runner sliding into home.
For the sophisticate
Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony (EMI/Warner Classics
Previn brings out the score's graceful sumptuousness, and the fanciful interludes are conveyed with great cheer and humor. (You'll notice the brass oom-pahs more here than in other recordings.) This is the recording to cue up for your Christmas cocktail party.
For the Yankophile
David Maninov conducting the Royal Philharmonic (self-released by the orchestra)
Never mind the London band playing on this recording: this is what we might have heard if Copland had composed The Nutcracker. With galloping action scenes and crashing crescendos, Maninov takes the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Wild West.
For the pocketbook-minder
Ondrej Lenard conducting the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony (Naxos)
Lenard's take on The Nutcracker isn't as rich or penetrating as some other recordings, but this version is sprightly and swift, with gratifying attention to detail. If you're looking to save ten bucks or more on your holiday soundtrack, this Naxos release is a solid option.