Tchaikovsky / Nutcracker Suites 1 & 2 / Ansermet – Our Shootout Winner from 2012

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Nutcracker Suites 1 & 2 / Ansermet


A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

This is an AMAZINGLY well recorded performance of one of the most famous ballets, probably the most famous, ever committed to analog tape. Enchanting music and sound combine on this copy to make one seriously good Demo Disc, if what you are trying to demonstrate is how relaxed and involved vintage analog can make you feel.

A record like this lets you get lost in the world of its music, and what could be more important in a recording than that? 

There is certainly no shortage of Audio Spectaculars available on the site. A record such as this, so rich, natural and effortless, has distinctly different qualities that we feel are every bit as vital to the critical audiophile’s enjoyment of Tchaikovsky’s music.

The exceptionally QUIET vinyl of this pressing doesn’t hurt either.

Side One – The Complete Suite No. 1

A++, Super Hot, with some of the richest, sweetest, most Tubey Magical sound you will ever hear in your home. The hall is huge. There is not a trace of phony sound anywhere to be found, and the most pronounced effect it has on the listener is to make him relax and forget entirely about the sound. With this record the music is all.

Side Two – Ansermet’s Excerpts

A+ to A++, every bit as rich and full-bodied as side one, but a slight smear on the strings can be heard, and some congestion creeps in during the loudest passages, so we docked it a half plus over side one.

Ansermet Is The Man

Ansermet’s performances of the two suites are hard to fault. In addition, the gorgeous hall the Suisse Romande recorded in was possibly the best recording venue of its day, possibly of all time; more amazing sounding recordings were made there than any other hall known to us. There is a richness to the sound that exceeds all others, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least. It’s as wide, deep and three-dimensional as any, which is of course all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the weight and power of the brass and the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

We like our recordings to have as many Live Music qualities as possible, and those qualities really come through on a record such as this when reproduced on the full-range speaker system we use. It’s precisely this kind of big, rich sound that makes audiophiles prize Decca-London recordings above those of virtually any other label, and here, unlike in so many areas of audio, we are fully in agreement with our fellow record lovers.

Other Recordings

We played Shaded Dogs by Reiner and Fiedler, both of whom opted against using the Suites as Tchaicovsky wrote them, preferring instead to create a shorter version of the complete ballet with excerpts of their own choosing.

On some copies of this album the strings are dry, lacking Tubey Magic. This is decidedly not our sound, although it can easily be heard on the hundreds of London pressings we’ve played over the years. If you have a rich sounding cartridge, perhaps with that little dip in the upper midrange that so many moving coils have these days, you will not notice this tonality issue nearly as much as we do. Our 17D3 is ruler flat and quite tonally unforgiving in this regard. It makes our shootouts much easier, but brings out the flaws in all but the best pressings, exactly the job we require it to do.

The Enchanting Celesta

One novelty in Tchaikovsky’s original score was the use of the celesta, a new instrument Tchaikovsky had discovered in Paris. He wanted it genuinely for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy to characterize her because of its “heavenly sweet sound”. It appears not only in her “Dance”, but also in other passages in Act II. (However, he first wrote for the celesta in his symphonic ballad The Voyevoda the previous year.)

Tchaikovsky also uses toy instruments during the Christmas party scene. Tchaikovsky was proud of the celesta’s effect, and wanted its music performed quickly for the public, before he could be “scooped.” – Wikipedia

Wikipedia on The Nutcracker Suites

Tchaikovsky made a selection of eight of the numbers from the ballet before the ballet’s December 1892 première, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The suite was first performed, under the composer’s direction, on 19 March 1892 at an assembly of the St. Petersburg branch of the Musical Society. The suite became instantly popular (according to Men of Music “every number had to be repeated”), but the complete ballet did not begin to achieve its great popularity until after the George Balanchine staging became a hit in New York City.

The suite became very popular on the concert stage, and was featured in Disney’s Fantasia. The Nutcracker Suite should not be mistaken for the complete ballet. The outline below represents the selection and sequence of the Nutcracker Suite culled by the composer.

I. Miniature Overture

II. Danses caractéristiques
a. Marche
b. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy [ending altered from ballet-version]
c. Russian Dance (Trepak)
d. Arabian Dance
e. Chinese Dance
f. Reed-Flutes

III. Waltz of the Flowers

Tchaikovsky also made a second suite, less well known and less frequently played, of some of the other numbers. [Ansermet has used some of the excerpts you see below and combined them with others to make his own “custom” Suite No. 2.]

Act I, Tableau I: Nos. 4 & 5
Act II: Adagio from the Grand Pas de Deux
Act II: Introduction, Scene Dansante, and Spanish Dance
Act II: Final Waltz and Apotheosis

The Nutcracker Ballet

The Nutcracker was Tchaikovsky’s last ballet. Working with a trite story in which there is no real human drama, Tchaikovsky was freed from having to worry about content, which allowed him to indulge his gift for memorable melody and ignited his imagination as an orchestrator. While the feeling of the ballet can at times seem rather shallow – a child’s Christmastime vision of the Kingdom of Sweets – the skill with which Tchaikovsky dresses up individual numbers in the most evocative orchestral colors still delights the ear.

Even where his melody is not extraordinary, Tchaikovsky’s treatment is. The main motive of the Act II pas de deux is nothing but a simple descending scale, yet the way it is harmonized and phrased, and clothed in the warmest of string colors, endows it with powerful sentiment. Tchaikovsky’s orchestration transcends the material in the overture as well; scored without cellos and basses, and with violins and violas divided into six parts, it conjures up the sound of a Classical orchestra with just a triangle and a piccolo added. A silvery, child-like, “play” overture, small in scale but full of glittering tinsel, it is just the thing for Christmas Eve.

The Nutcracker is typical of Tchaikovsky’s later music in its delicate use of the strings, which provide shimmering backdrops to many of the scenes. But it shows a literalism unusual for the composer, especially in the children’s voices in the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and the children’s instruments for several other numbers in Act. I. The writing for standard instruments is marvelously inventive, particularly in the Act II divertissement, where chocolate is represented by a Spanish Dance, coffee by an Arabian Dance and tea by a Chinese Dance. But the most wonderful touch of all is the solo celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy,” which so charmingly suggests the drops of water “spurting from fountains” called for in the scenario.

From liner notes

Heavy Vinyl and the Loss of Transparency

So often when we revisit the remastered pressings we used to like on Heavy Vinyl we come away dumbfounded — what on earth were we thinking? These are not the droids sounds we are looking for. Perhaps our minds were clouded at the time.

Below are some thoughts from a recent classical listing that we hope will shed some light on our longstanding aversion to the sound of modern remasterings. (The Heavy Vinyl Scorecard in our Commentary sections has a great deal more on the subject as well.)

This original pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing any sign of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to SEE the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in a real concert hall, this is the record for you. It’s what Golden Age Recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this sound on vinyl. Old records have it — usually, not always to be sure — but new records do not, ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings? Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is TRANSPARENCY. Modern records are just so damn opaque. We can’s stand that sound. It drives us crazy. Important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found.

That audiophiles in general — including those that pass themselves off as the champions of analog in the audio press — do not notice these failings does not speak well for either their equipment or their critical listening skills.

It is our contention that no one alive today makes records that sound as good as the ones we sell. Once you hear this Hot Stamper pressing, those 180 gram records you own may never sound right to you again. They sure don’t sound right to us, but we are in the enviable position of being able to play the best properly cleaned older pressings (reissues included) side by side with the new ones, where the faults of the current reissues become much more recognizable, even obvious. When you can hear them that way, head to head, there really is no comparison.

A Lost Cause

The wonderful vintage disc we are offering here will surely shame 100% of the Heavy Vinyl pressings ever made, as no Heavy Vinyl pressing — not one — has ever sounded especially transparent or spacious to us when played against the best Golden Age recordings, whether pressed back in the day or twenty years later.

Many of the major labels were producing superb classical records well into the ’70s. By the ’90s no one, and we really do mean no one, could manage to make a record that compares with them.

Precisely the reason we stopped carrying The Modern LP Pressing — it just can’t compete with good vintage vinyl, assuming that the vinyl in question has been properly mastered, pressed and cleaned.

This is of course something we would never assume — we clean the records and play them and that’s how we find out whether they are any good or not. There is no other way to do it — for any record from any era — despite what you may have read elsewhere.