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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Complete Columbia Recordings
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture (1870) [18:41]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1878) [41:18]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor (II and III) (1888) [20:21]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor (1888) [44:19]
Waltz from Serenade for Strings (1880) [3:57]
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Willem Mengelberg
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 1927-1930
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC511 [59:29 + 68:17]

Willem Mengelberg's track-record as a Tchaikovsky conductor goes back to his earliest days with the Concertgebouw, just a few years after the composer's death. These recordings, made in the orchestra's home hall, presumably preserve that experience. The tyranny of the 78s' short-running sides does not seem to have pushed the conductor into speeding things up - at least not by the present century's standards. The two Columbia-originated middle movements from the Fifth Symphony in June 1927 are examples of his stirringly 'sticky' and heroically paced approach. The second movement is quite striking in this respect and also in relation to his swashbuckling portamenti. One can see why the latter were so popular - will we ever go back to those days?

Five months later and, on surfaces a degree or two quieter (but still not silent) than the ones for the earlier recording, Mengelberg recorded all four movements of the Fifth. His style has not changed and that sense of constant indefatigable control and security of tempi and dynamic are immanent. In that sense he is the opposite of incandescently volcanic Russians of the ilk of Ovchinnikov and Golovanov. The slancio of the last movement's transitions may not be as accentuated as the Fifth from Mravinsky but it is still striking. Mengelberg, for all his control, avoids any calcification. Mengelberg is unusually stolid and rigid in the opening of the finale of No. 5 and this endearingly brings out the pizzicato element. He gives this tempestuous Andante maestoso its head and ladles a sensational degree of kinetic excitement in those last five minutes. What would he have done with Francesca da Rimini? The Waltz from the Serenade for Strings is again delightfully taut and its counterpointed progress and portamenti are heard to good effect.

The Fourth Symphony again tends towards whiskery surface noise, although one can easily listen through that given Mengelberg's distinctive approach. Much the same applies to his Romeo and Juliet. The playing in both works is much more than merely spirited. The sliding and slippery portamenti contribute greatly to enjoyment. The brass in No. 4 register strongly and the fateful fanfares are unusually gaunt and almost drained of emotion.

Mr Obert-Thorn reports that the sources for the transfers were U.S. Columbia “Viva-Tonal” label pressings, and French Odéons for the two movements from the Fifth Symphony from 1927. That awareness of control also extends to Andrew Rose's transformational work on pitch stabilisation on the complete No. 5 - you do not give it a second thought, nor should you have to. Mengelberg and today's listeners are in good hands.

Mark Obert-Thorn has done his accustomed slap-up job of extracting what feels like the best out of presumably recalcitrant original sound materials. This extends to securing a burred edge to the pecking chatter of the string section in the third movement of the Fifth Symphony.

What a pleasure it is to hear these works as a continuous whole. It takes most of us an effort of imagination to conjure up the side-changing ritual of the original 78 sets with, in the case of No. 5, their twelve sides.

Rob Barnett

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


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