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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, “Winter Daydreams” (1868, rev 1874) [44:10]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, “Little Russian” (1873) [33:38]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1878) [41:34]
The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892) [22:54]
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (1)
New Philharmonia Orchestra (2), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (4)/Claudio Abbado
Berlin Phiharmonic Orchestra/Ferdinand Leitner (suite)
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, May 26-27, 1959 (suite); Wembley Town Hall, London, February 20-22, 1968 (2), Symphony Hall, Boston, March 23, 1970 (1), Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, August 12-13, 1975 (3)
ELOQUENCE 482 6168 [2 CDs: 142:34]

A wonderful selection of Tchaikovsky performances here, not all first choices by any means, but there is much enchantment at work nevertheless.

The performance of the First Symphony was issued in 1970. There is delicious clarity to the bass in Tilson Thomas’s recording; a pity some of the upper frequencies in the woodwind feel rather recessed and overly reverbed, and the high strings can occasionally feel rather glassy at higher dynamics. The enchantment noted in the opening paragraph of this review is there in abundance, though; there is a real freshness to this performance. The first movement was subtitled “Daydreams on a winter journey”; the second, a flowing Adagio cantabile ma non tanto, “Land of gloom, land of mists”. There is no missing the fact that only Tchaikovsky could have written the long cello melody. In this movement, sadly, there is some blurring of lower string pizzicato, a pity because Tilson Thomas paces it well, and the brass statement of the big, Slavic theme has great power.

The material from the third movement, derived from Tchaikovsky’s student piano sonata, includes a suave dance theme, beautifully moulded by Tilson Thomas. The Bostonians clearly deliver crisp articulation and staccato throughout, but it gets slightly tarnished by the recording. Tilson Thomas paces the opening Andante lugubre of the finale beautifully, though, inspiring his Boston orchestra to real beauties of phrasing. Tilson Thomas also finds more strength and integrity of structure in the finale than most of his rivals; this lovely performance presents Tchaikovsky’s counterpoint unapologetically.

Interestingly, we have an Abbado recording here, the “Little Russian”. It also is Abbado who provided a fine First with the Chicagoans. Muti also has his way with the First, not one to dwell and sightsee but nevertheless compelling. Abbado’s recording of the Second Symphony with the New Philharmonia is actually the one I grew up with. I got to know the piece from back in the late 1970s, when it was already reissued: the coupling on the DG LP in question (Accolade 2542 113) was Abbado’s Boston Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture that appears elsewhere in the Eloquence series (with the Sixth, and reviewed by Rob Barnett here).

Abbado’s “Little Russian” remains top of the pile. It would be amazing to know who the first horn player is. The opening solo is impeccable, as is the second horn’s contribution later when we hear it in octaves just before the Allegro vivo kicks in. And what a kick: Abbado galvanises the players to maximal intensity. As is typical of Abbado, articulation is perfectly judged and together, yet here he finds the sweep of the movement in tandem. Mystery, drama and structural integrity go hand in hand. The second movement is an Allegretto marziale, perfectly performed by all departments. The woodwinds in particular are a delight, nowhere more so than in the cheeky off-beats of the final bars. The sheer grandeur of the opening of the finale is beautifully conveyed in Chris Bernauer’s remastering (far better than anything my LP player was ever capable of). The sprightly yet intense rhythms of the strings reveal terrific levels of discipline. The drama of the finale’s lead-up to its scampering coda is wonderfully done by all concerned; the orchestral blaze of that coda itself now shines forth resplendently in this remastering.

With the Fourth Symphony, we enter territory that is, to put it mildly, overcrowded. And yet Abbado in August 1975 and the Vienna Philharmonic still hold their heads high. There is a propulsive thrust running through the reading, a sense of excitement that never fully lets go, that leads one to realise that the freneticism of the finale is the only way through and out. On the way, Abbado persuades the Vienna strings to phrase most persuasively the sighing, downward phrases so characteristic of Tchaikovsky. It is as if the music seeks to move inwards but externalities keep on preventing it doing so. The oboe phrasing at the outset of the Andantino in modo di canzone is glorious; but it is the way the recording of the Scherzo’s pizzicato has held up that is so impressive.The finale has less sheer velocity and fervour than the famous Szell/Cleveland performance, but it remains an exciting and highly polished experience.

The filler for the first disc is Ferdinand Leitner’s splendid 1959 performance of the Nutcracker Suite. Studio recorded it might be, studio-bound it is not. There is plenty of life to the “Russian Dance”, and plenty of rhythmic bounce to the “Arabian Dance”. Perhaps most impressive is the long harp solo in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” washes of golden sound perfectly caught by the DGG engineers (producer Wolfgang Lohse and engineer Werner Wolf); the impassioned cello melody later on in that movement is a thing of joy too, though. These flowers waltz with a light grace.

Raymond Tuttle’s excellent booklet notes round off a sterling release. It offered this reviewer, at least, a trip down memory lane.

Colin Clarke



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