First Listen

First Listen: Simon Rattle Conducts 'The Nutcracker'

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The Nutcracker i i

hide captionThe Nutcracker protects Clara from invading armies of mice.

EMI
The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker protects Clara from invading armies of mice.

EMI

Why haven't I heard this before? I kept asking my car CD player on a long drive through the fall colors of Midwestern bluff-country. The CD player didn't respond — it just kept spinning track after track of 120-year-old music that was brand-new to me, as colorful and surprising as what I saw out my window.

This is a little embarrassing. Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is the most ubiquitous crowd-pleaser out there. Ballet companies around the world perform it every December. I should have known this music — but I don't go to ballets. (It's called tutuphobia.) So the Nutcracker I know is confined to suites pulled from the complete ballet, or snippets that crop up in TV commercials and movie soundtracks.

But when I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic's drop-dead gorgeous new two-CD set, I heard this beautiful, inventive and fanciful music for the first time. It was like reading a classic novel I'd previously known only through Sparknotes.

Throughout my long drive, Berlin's new Nutcracker took me deep into the story of Clara, the Mouse King, the Prince and all the rest. I found so many details to love, like the salty, obnoxious sounds of noisemakers in the percussion section (after all, the story begins at a Christmas party). Then there's the little chime striking midnight, delicate as an ice crystal, unlocking the mysterious story.  And children's voices — who knew there was a children's choir in The Nutcracker? When I heard the silvery voices of the boychoir Libera chiming in, I hit the "repeat" button on the CD player so fast, I nearly went in the ditch.

The real joy, though, was in discovering the gorgeous, sweeping passages for strings — every bit as heartfelt as what's in the Fifth Symphony, the 1812 Overture and Swan Lake.

You can check just about everyone off your Christmas list with this recording. You'll probably have many of them asking: Why haven't I heard this before?

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First Listen