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The Nutcracker Suite, Op 71a


During the first half of the 19th century, before Tchaikovsky, the quality of ballet music seldom rose above mediocre. Ballet-masters actually required undistinguished music, so that the dancing should always command undivided attention. They happily employed composers such as Ludwig Minkus and Adolphe Adam, who employed all the facile tricks of the trade in providing stereotyped music of little individuality. This state of affairs meant also that serious composers of any ambition tended to show little interest in writing for the ballet. Before Tchaikovsky the outstanding composer of ballet scores was Delibes, whose Coppélia remains central to the repertoire. Himself a great admirer of Delibes’ music, Tchaikovsky expressed doubts about writing ballet scores: “They tell me that during the production of a new ballet, ballet-masters treat the music very unceremoniously and demand many changes and alterations. To write under such conditions is impossible.” However, this initial reluctance was subsequently overcome by professional expediency. By October 1875, shortly after receiving his first ballet commission, Swan Lake, he was able to write: “I accepted the work, partly because I want the money, but also because I have long had the wish to try my hand at this kind of music.” Already in Swan Lake Tchaikovsky’s inspired and utterly memorable music represented a tremendous advance on traditional ballet scores. His second ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty, followed in 1889. The Nutcracker (1892) is based on Nutcracker and Mouse-king, a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann combining reality with fantasy. It is Christmas Eve and the town president has planned a celebration for his children and their friends. Clara, the daughter of the house, receives among her presents a nutcracker in the shape of a man, but her brother Fritz breaks it. At midnight she sneaks back for another look at the broken nutcracker, only to be confronted by an invasion of mice. The toys all come to life and engage in a battle with the mice, at the height of which the Nutcracker and the Mouse-king fight a duel. Clara intervenes to save the Nutcracker from defeat and, now transformed into a handsome prince, he invites her to the Kingdom of Sweets. Tchaikovsky again displayed his special genius for writing tactile music of great potency and his extraordinary affinity with the magical world of ballet.

The Divertissement from Act 2 provides an extremely varied sequence of entertaining dances with no bearing on the plot. Many of these dances are heard, in a different order, in the orchestral concert-suite Tchaikovsky devised. The March, which accompanies the children’s entrance in Act 1, is deft and piquant, evoking the world of toys rather than the parade ground. For the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy Tchaikovsky specially (and secretly, in case Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov heard of it and used it first) ordered from Paris a celesta, a relatively new instrument. A lively Russian Dance follows, then the brief but vivid Chinese Dance, originally orchestrated with strutting bassoons and shrill flute and piccolo. Forming part of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta, The Nutcracker was first staged in December 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg.

Mikhail Pletnev (born 1957 in Archangelsk) is one of the outstanding pianists of his generation and a conductor in great demand. He received the gold medal in the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition and has subsequently made numerous recordings of music including Scarlatti, C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Shchedrin. In 1990 he founded the Russian National Orchestra, serving as its chief conductor until 1999.

As an arranger for piano he has transcribed—in addition to the Nutcracker Suite recorded here—suites from The Sleeping Beauty and from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella. His transcription of seven movements from The Nutcracker (published 1978) represents a personal choice rather than adherence to the sequence familiar from Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suite. In Pletnev’s piano version the Overture from the orchestral suite is omitted, the remaining movements being March, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella (Variation 1, which follows the Pas de deux), Intermezzo (No 8 from Scene II of the ballet, with its wonderfully spacious and dignified melody), Trepak (Russian Dance, with Pletnev’s brilliant additions), Tea (Chinese Dance) and the rapturous Pas de deux (Andante maestoso) with its overwhelming climax. Only movements 1, 2, 5 and 6 are from the orchestral suite. Pletnev’s magnificent arrangement, while vividly orchestral in effect, enhances the virtuoso pianist’s repertoire in the tradition of all the greatest transcriptions.

from notes by Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2016


Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 & Nutcracker Suite
Studio Master: SIGCD441Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Tempo di marcia viva
Track 4 on SIGCD441 [2'01] Download only
Movement 2: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy: Andante ma non troppo
Track 5 on SIGCD441 [2'00] Download only
Movement 3: Tarantella
Track 6 on SIGCD441 [1'23] Download only
Movement 4: Intermezzo
Track 7 on SIGCD441 [4'24] Download only
Movement 5: Trepak (Russian dance): Molto vivace
Track 8 on SIGCD441 [1'19] Download only
Movement 6: Tea (Chinese dance): Allegro moderato
Track 9 on SIGCD441 [1'18] Download only
Movement 7: Andante maestoso
Track 10 on SIGCD441 [5'43] Download only

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