Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90 (1883) [35:12]*
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique) (1893) [46:09]
Novaya Rossiya State Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Bashmet
rec. in concert, Great Hall, Moscow Conservaory, April 2004, *February 2005
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5023 [81:28]

For veteran listeners, the two wind chords that launch the Brahms symphony will be a dead giveaway. The first, while cleanly attacked, sounds vaguely wheezy in tone rather than smoothly blended. In the second chord, a single trumpet crescendos more than everyone else, with a pressed vibrato. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Russian orchestra: in this instance, the Novaya Rossiya State Symphony, founded in 1990, which actually has its act pretty much together -- the strings are better than average for a post-Soviet (post-mass-emigration) ensemble.

Yuri Bashmet, an accomplished violist -- no, that's not an oxymoron -- has successfully directed his Moscow Soloists in a variety of chamber-scaled repertoire on RCA; here he moves into the big symphonic standards. This Brahms Third stresses melodic flow and forward motion, sometimes to the point of sounding hasty. In the first movement, Bashmet maintains his initial surging tempo for the second subject, bringing out its dance-like lilt; but he holds the pulse too strictly, losing the customary, and desirable, "breath" at 1:58 before the big string statement, matter-of-fact in its turn. That rest almost completely disappears on the repeat, at 4:56, though this time the strings play out more. At least one can't fault the conductor's feeling for the movement's drama.

Bashmet seems undecided as to how to start the Andante, laying out the opening theme forthrightly, but clouding the issue with unmarked, "expressive" tenutos and ritards; soon thereafter, he stops meddling and just plays the music, though the three-against-two recap isn't the most secure. The opening theme of the Poco allegretto, which George Szell used to play with dark, expressive tone, sounds oddly reined-in and lightweight here, though the sonority does expand nicely as the movement progresses; the principal horn's old-fashioned hint of unsteadiness in the recap shouldn't be disturbing. The finale hustles along, just this side of rushing, but Bashmet keeps control, and it works.

As you might expect, this Pathétique has many fine things in it. The first movement receives an expressive, well-organized performance, although a few of the pianos tip over into inaudibility. The development, attacked with a taut, edge-of-the-seat rhythmic alertness, is gripping; the final clarinet solo is poignant, avoiding bathos. The Allegro con grazia moves along nicely, though Bashmet's attempts at delicacy sound finicky, and provoke a few horn burps along the way -- so much for con grazia! The Allegro molto vivace is thrilling.

Unfortunately, the finale rules the entire performance out of court. At the start, Bashmet -- like Daniel Barenboim in his hideous Chicago account (Teldec/Warner) -- substitutes an effete, drawn-out piano for the indicated forte, reducing Tchaikovsky's cry of anguish to so much whining. Making matters worse, the conductor tries to micro-manage the expression -- note by note, the way some pianists do when they take up the baton -- which just makes it harder for the players to stay together, particularly when the music moves. The non-landing at 7:33-7:34 will leave you slack-jawed, not the good way.

The sound is vivid and colorful; the bass seems light, but perhaps that's the playing rather than the recording. David Nice's note in the booklet refers to "[t]he familiar rubato of the Russian horn sound," which usage is simply incorrect: "rubato" refers to rhythmic flexibility, not to tonal quality. It's a shame about the generous timing -- all things considered, it's not an asset.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Shame about the generous timing -- all things considered, it's not an asset.