The holiday favorite ballet has had better recordings, but this Fourth will knock your socks off.

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker, Op. 71; Sym. No. 4 in f, Op. 36 – Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0593 (2 discs), 129:02 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This is Gergiev’s second go round with the Nutcracker; the first was with the then-called Kirov Opera from 1998, and was a big seller. This one seems rather willful to me. Gergiev, for no particular reason, pushes and pulls the tempos in many sections where there is little more need than the fact that he simply likes it like that. “Waltz of the Flowers” is deadly slow, with a Furtwanglerian race to the finish that makes no sense even from an easy-to-dance standpoint. There are also a few minor intonation issues and some scrappy string playing in a few spots, nothing egregious, but unexpected from these forces. Nonetheless, this Nutcracker is good enough to offer a lot of pleasure, even though I don’t think it can compete with the splendors of the radiant Ormandy recording (selections) or the wonderful MCA two-fer with Arthur Rodzinsky, surely one of his greatest efforts.

So it is a little curious how this reading is coupled with one of the most exciting Fourth Symphonys that I have ever heard. Here, all is well with the world. There are still some Gergiev eccentricities (which I never hear in his Mahler recordings), but they are absorbed by the wildly eccentric fate-dominated smartness of Tchaikovsky’s score. Every bar bursts with brilliance and color (the splendid SACD sound contributes no little substance to the exceptional excitement of this recording), and Gergiev’s measured approach to the connectivity of the four movements adds to the overall sumptuousness of his conception.

A good Nutcracker and a great Fourth make this an easy recommendation!

—Steven Ritter