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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Symphony No 2 in C minor Op 17 “Little Russian” (1872 rev. 1880) [32:26]
Symphony No 4 in F minor Op 36 (1878) [43:33]
Tonhalle-Orchester, Zurich/Paavo Järvi
rec. live Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, October 2019 (No 4) January 2020 (No 2).
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
This is the second release in what will be a complete series of the
Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded live. The first volume featured the Fifth
symphony and was warmly greeted by William Hedley on these pages –
– see also
Late 2020 Retrospective.
Tchaikovsky’s Second symphony bears the nickname “Little Russian” due to
its inclusion of Ukrainian folk songs, most notably in the delectable
slow movement. It underwent serious revision by the composer in 1880, the
version recorded here and the one most commonly used.
Whilst it contains a lot of vintage Tchaikovsky, the Second symphony can be
hard to bring off in a wholly convincing way. The outer movements, in
particular, can seem episodic and momentum can be easily lost. Perhaps
Järvi benefits from the extra adrenaline of a live performance but there
are no such concerns here. The finale in particular is a tour de force.
Perhaps the gong crash toward the end could have been done with a touch
more theatre but the rest of the movement is intensely exciting, helped out
by thunderous timpani and yet another top drawer Alpha recording. Having
listened to Pletnev, Neeme Järvi, Bernstein and several others in this
finale, I vouch for the fact that none of them can match Paavo Järvi for
sheer panache. His approach to the Moderato introduction is very broad, to
maximise the contrast with the faster main section. The effect is almost
reminiscent of the climax of the 1812 Overture.
The rest of the symphony is equally well done. The slow movement is handled
with almost balletic grace and a wit that makes even Abbado’s classic VPO
account seem a little staid (DG 4295272, also with No 4 – download only, or
Eloquence 4826168, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 and Nutcracker Suite –
review). This is a serious contender in a competitive field and Paavo Järvi is a
natural in this music.
The competition is even fiercer with the Fourth symphony. Only six years
separate the first version of the Second and the composition of the Fourth,
but the latter represents a quantum leap in terms of Tchaikovsky’s
symphonic development. No work better reflects the fallout from
Tchaikovsky’s disastrous attempt at marriage than this work, particularly
the first movement where Fate blares out on full brass, intended to
represent, in the composer’s own image, the sword of Damocles.
This opening movement combines numerous disparate elements and can prove
tricky to weld into a convincing argument from start to finish. To my ears,
Abbado’s version on DG, which won a rosette in the Penguin Guide (see
above), sometimes lets the momentum sag. Mravinsky is incomparable in this
movement in both of his DG accounts. My preference is for the earlier one.
From the almost feral assault on the motto theme by the Leningrad brass, he
doesn’t let up. Järvi is a more thoughtful guide. It is beautifully played
and immaculately shaped but at times the symphonic thread seems to get a
little lost. The climaxes are suitably thrilling but the various sections
don’t seem to fit together as convincingly as they do for Mravinsky. One
aspect that did impress me greatly was Järvi’s handling of the last
appearance of the first subject in the final bars of the coda. Where most
conductors push this version on tremolo strings as hard as they can,
creating a highly febrile almost overstretched sound, Järvi does the
opposite and dials things back a little. The effect is almost Gothic and
I did have some concerns about the slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s
loveliest inspirations. The folk inspired opening melody sounds a little
glib to my ears, not helped by the rather brisk tempo. Järvi and his
excellent orchestra do work up an impressive head of steam later in the
movement but others, for example Abbado and especially Mravinsky, dig
The Alpha recording really comes into its own in the third movement
scherzo, where the pizzicato strings leap out of the speakers. Ideally I
would have liked a bit more characterisation of the tipsy woodwind writing
in the trio but the interplay between the scherzo elements and those of the
trio at the end are done with great flair and sound stunning.
The finale is an absolute riot in the best sense, with the final eruption
of the Damocles motto suitably cataclysmic and a huge adrenaline rush as
Järvi and his players stampede for the line. I expect this had the audience
on their feet at the time of the recording.
All told, this is a highly enjoyable release and well worth hearing,
especially for the Second, which stands out in a densely packed catalogue.
The Fourth, on the other hand, is very good, but just a little short of the