It’s that time of year, again. Regardless of your religious persuasion, or lack of it, you’ll likely find yourself at some point in the coming weeks listening to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Perhaps you make a nearly annual trek to see the ballet. I recall some years back taking my then ten year old son and his buddy to see it. I perhaps hadn’t properly explained to the young men what The Nutcracker was and suspect that they thought it some sort of macho contest. In any event, as the lights dimmed, the lush music cued, and a woman came dancing out on her toes, my son’s friend stood up, looked incredulously at me, and exclaimed at the top of his lungs, “But, but, this is, uh, like ballet!” His mood didn’t improve when I responded, “Actually, it is ballet.”
Sure, the ballet, though now as central a component of the holiday aesthetic as the Dickens staple, A Christmas Carol, hasn’t always received the kindest of responses from critics. The 1892 premier in St. Petersburg, Russia witnessed disparagement of its dancers, choreography, and the scandalous participation of children in ballet. From that first performance, though, critics found the score “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original.”
It is an astonishing piece of music. But, once you’ve acquired the 1998 recording by the Kirov Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting, you’ve really no need for any other orchestral rendering.
Ah, but what of recordings using other instruments, you ask? Alas, until now, you wouldn’t have found any. You would have had to settle for some interesting takes on The Nutcracker Suite, a sort of greatest hits of the ballet score. For something different, the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra’s 1998 release, Klezmer Nutcracker, is charming and fascinating. If your tastes lean to the totally batshit crazy, Spike Jones’s 1945 version is for you.
Guitar versions of the Suite also abound. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s 1992 version is excellent, as is Duo Symphonious’s 2012 arrangement for two classical guitars. If you’d like it a bit louder, you might consider picking up the 2008 heavy metal version performed by Christmas at the Devil’s House.
In 1990, Stephen Bennett released what to my ears is the finest all-guitar version of the Suite. Working from the piano score, Bennett multitracked acoustic and electric guitars to cover most of the orchestral parts in the compositions. The result is imaginative, tasteful, and always musical. More than two decades later, you’ll still hear clips of the performance on NPR.
A couple of years ago a New York City stage director happened upon Bennett’s recording of the Suite, was fittingly impressed, and approached the guitarist about arranging and recording the full ballet. She aspired to use Bennett’s recording as the foundation of a re-imagined production of the ballet. Still intrigued by the music and feeling like the Suite only partially satisfied his muse, Bennett leapt into the project. Unfortunately, the director choreographed her own exit from the project. Fortunately for fans of music in general and the guitar in particular, Bennett carried on with the mission.
The result, The Nutcracker: Complete Ballet Score for Guitar Orchestra, is not simply a monumental accomplishment. It’s delightful, offers surprises, and, as is everything Stephen Bennett, it’s musical. It’s a forty piece, all guitar orchestra. Bennett has imbued the recording with a stunning array of variations in texture and dynamics. He’s made surprising and delicious decisions on when to use a nylon string guitar, a classical guitar, a harp guitar, or an electric guitar. The selected instruments take the place stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass, and, well, every instrument in the orchestra. Sprightly phrases on a classical guitar dance with distorted electric guitar riffs, delicate steel string notes, and keening slide guitar parts, all while the electric bass holds down the bottom end. As Bennett observes in the liner notes, over the course of the two-year recording process he rendered some parts 175 times before being satisfied not only that he got all of the notes right, but that each instrument melded sufficiently with the others to produce a true ensemble effect. In a word, it’s stunning.
You can’t while listening to Bennett’s efforts help but smile at his audacity, artistry and that, well, he actually pulled it off. The melodies of familiar favorites like “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Waltz of the Flowers, “and “Trepak (Russian Dance)” become new. Musical parts your ears forced to the background because of familiarity will, when rendered in electric slide guitar, burst forth. The mixing and mastering are outstanding, helping to ensure an ensemble impression.
Highly recommended for any music lover and an obligatory addition to the collection of the devotee of guitar music.
I may give a copy to my son’s friend, who is now a young adult. I can imagine his response, “But, but, it’s, uh, like ballet music … and it’s really cool!”