The first of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, The Nutcracker, was debuted unsuccessfully in 1892 on the same evening as his opera, Iolanta. A suite based on several of the ballet’s melodies, which Tchaikovsky produced at the same time, was an instant and enormous success. It was not until George Ballenchrine’s 1955 staging with the New York City Ballet that the full work became a standard in the United States — in fact, The Nutcracker provides ballet companies guaranteed revenue every Christmas season, sometimes as much as half their annual operating budgets — Sarah Kaufman accused this dependency of “tyranny,” for stunting the development of ballet in the United States in this editorial for the Washington Post.
We are now guilty of feeding this vice, having this past week taken our four year old daughter to see a performance of The Nutcracker. Did she love it? Yes, she would like to be a ballerina now, pretending with her brother that she was Clara all afternoon. She would also like to be a mouse, a camel and several other creatures. Her toys became props in a ballet of her own and she has even asked to Tchaikovsky’s music again.
We were fortunate to find in the shop a copy of Antal Dorati’s first and second recordings of The Nutcracker, which are both wonderful recordings — The first was recorded in mono with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1955, and may be the first recording on LP of the entire ballet (most recordings are of the shorter Nutcracker Suite). His second recording of the complete ballet was with the London Symphony Orchestra a few years later — recorded for Mercury’s Living Presence imprint. It is one of the great early stereo recordings of an orchestra — one of those records that sounds so good on a nice turntable that it makes you happy to be a collector!
Also in the shop was a far less familiar recording of the suite, adapted for jazz orchestra by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1961. Their light-hearted, swinging arrangements capture the Ellington Orchestra in one of those periods of immense talent and creativity. Russel Procope learned to play the bamboo whistle for their arrangement of “Arabian Dance” and the whole band shifts the famous march quickly into a dance number.
We used a couple tracks from this album on our annual Christmas mix CD, since this year we focused on jazz recordings. Those are out in the shop, by the way, and you probably want to stop in over the weekend if you want one because already half of them are gone. It also includes great interpretations of holiday standards by the Bill Evans, Ramsey Lewis, King Curtis and Urbie Green, to name a few of our favorites.
Two of our favorite longtime members of the great Orchestra, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, are fantastic in “Sugar Rum Cherry,” the Ellington/Strayhorn version of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” Sam Woodyard adds the perfect percussive touches.