An outstanding transcription for piano of a most beloved ballet score – it’ll have you dancing!
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker – complete ballet transcribed for piano – performed by Stewart Goodyear – Steinway & Sons multichannel SACD 30040, 82:21 [10/9/15] *****:
Few people are neutral on the subject of Christmas: most either love it or hate it. I’m one who loves it, and I find the music of Christmas to be an enormously important part of the tradition. So I was excited when this transcription for solo piano of the full Nutcracker ballet score arrived. I had enjoyed for years the DGG recording by Martha Argerich and Nicolas Economou of the Nutcracker Suite (in Economou’s piano transcription, and paired with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances), but that contained only the highlights of Tchaikovsky’s score. This is the whole thing! . . the whole story!
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) was a unique composer – and the Nutcracker is unique among his works. His father was a mining engineer and his mother was of French background. The boy was destined to be a civil servant, and indeed completed full training at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence at age 19. But he enjoyed music and travel more than working, and immersed himself in the diversions. When he was denied a promotion in the civil service, he applied, at age 22, to be in the first class of the new St. Petersburg Conservatory. He studied theory and composition, piano, flute and organ. His principal teacher was Anton Rubenstein, who became a close friend. Tchaikovsky was a phenomenon: one of his earliest compositions, Characteristic Dances – pre-graduation, and since lost – was conducted by Johann Strauss.
Tchaikovsky occupied a distinctive place in Russian musical history. He was the first to fully assimilate Western European symphonic tradition – he bridged the thinking of Beethoven and Schumann with that of Glinka, and absorbed the programmatic ideas of Liszt and Berlioz, manifesting them in Shakespeare-inspired works. He was friendly with, but not a member of, the Mighty Handful, the five Russian composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) who rejected Western musical practices, including Conservatory training, in favour of a home-grown Russian foundation. Women too played interesting roles in Tchaikovsky’s life: key events included his mother’s death in 1854, his disastrous marriage (for ten weeks) at age 37, and his more positive 13-year relationship with a patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. The new Moscow Conservatory opened the year Tchaikovsky graduated from St. Petersburg, and he was offered, and accepted, a position as Professor of Music Theory. Through most of his thirties and forties, he composed in many genres, travelled to musical centres in Europe, and wrote criticism. He was invited to America when he was 51, and conducted at the inaugural concert in Carnegie Hall.
The Nutcracker’s place among Tchaikovsky’s compositions is also unique. In addition to six symphonies, important concertos, operas and popular overtures, the two other ballets – Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty – are also beloved. Tchaikovsky is among four composers (with Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms) whose music accounts for 24% of all the 10,000 pieces performed by the seven major North American orchestras over the last six years. So Tchaikovsky is popular, but in its niche, Nutcracker is even more so – accounting for 40% of the revenue for North American ballet companies over the last few years. How do we explain the success of Nutcracker? It was the last of his three ballets, indeed one of his last major works (only Symphony No. 6, and an unfinished No. 7 followed before his death in that same year of 1893). He had formed a strong relationship with the librettist Marius Petipa (who had worked with him on Sleeping Beauty). The pair was commissioned by the Imperial Theatres to prepare a double-bill program – an opera Iolanta, and the Nutcracker ballet – to be performed on the same evening.
For the ballet, Petipa selected a fantastic story that Alexandre Dumas père had adapted from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Petipa further gave Tchaikovsky detailed instructions about the tempo and number of bars for each of the 24 sections. The result was a delight – a fantasy for, and about, children. The ballet’s debut in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in mid-December 1892 was preceded by the première nine months earlier of the Nutcracker Suite, with the audience demanding an encore for almost every one of the eight numbers. It took a New York staging by George Balanchine in 1954 to launch the full ballet toward its current popularity.
But this album is also a triumph for Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear. He is one of the rising stars on the world concert stage. His preparation for a career in music has been impeccable – pre-teens spent in a choir school, early teens at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, late teens at the Curtis Institute with Leon Fleischer, and then to Julliard for a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance. He just returned home from a concert in Zurich, and since we live in the same city, I had a chance to chat with him. It was a late October day, and even though we were indoors, he was dressed like another renowned Toronto pianist (Glenn Gould), in heavy coat, glove and a hat with ear-coverings down. We talked about his life of travel to performances, and of his interest, from an early age, in composing and transcribing.
I was struck by how focused and determined a young man he is. He is driven by projects. A key one grew from his earliest piano memory – listening to the Tchaikovsky and Grieg Concerti on his grandparents’ vinyl at age three. He resolved to be a pianist. Three decades later, he reached out to the Czech National Symphony and its director Stanislav Bogunia to record the two concerti with Stewart as soloist, but with no assurance of a distribution contract. That fell into place when the senior people at Steinway & Sons heard the tape, loved it, and committed to make it their first ever orchestral album, after three years of only piano solo recordings. Another project was the preparation, performance in concert, and recording of all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.
Goodyear also has a pipeline full of composition commissions: he treats each as a project. And of course there’s this monumental project to transcribe the full, rich orchestral Nutcracker score for solo piano. Counter-intuitively, he manages to reveal the melodic details and intricacies that we gloss over in the full score. And he has a performing accuracy, clarity and touch that bring the music joyously alive. I asked him what the major challenges were in transcribing – he mentioned two: 1) trying to emulate the sound of the celesta in the “Sugar-Plum Fairy Dance” (the “heavenly, sweet sound” of the new instrument Tchaikovsky had just discovered in Paris), and 2) capturing the tumult and fury in the “Battle and Transformation Scene.” He succeeds remarkably in both, and indeed in the full 80+ minutes of music.
The recording was done over three days in February 2015 at the Sono Lumino Studios in Boyce, Virginia. I wrote about this venue in my review of the Pictures album with Andrey Gugnin. It is a favorite of the people running the Steinway & Sons label, including Eric and Jon Feidner, the Executive Producers of this album. Stewart Goodyear spoke about the relaxed and familial atmosphere during the recording session: children of the technical staff were present and were consulted about whether the recording captured the playfulness of each movement.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this recording, particularly approaching the festive season and in surround, as a wonderful gift for yourself or anyone, young or old. The listening pleasure will last year-round.