Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pictures at an Exhibition.
Symphony No. 4 in f
Tugan Sokhiev, cond; O Nat’l du Capitole de Toulouse
NAÏVE 5068 (76:22)
Expectations based on prejudgments are likely to lead to hasty and regrettable assessments. Here before me was a new recording of two repertoire war-horses taken up by a conductor unfamiliar to me, leading an orchestra long associated with Michel Plasson, and one that has not been regularly
ranked among the world’s preeminent ensembles. What could this combination possibly add to a crowded field of two already over-recorded works? Well, let me answer the question outright: this is one of the most spectacular orchestral recordings I have ever heard of anything, period; and it’s not even an SACD format disc.
A little over a year ago (29:3), I enthused over a new offering of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on Harmonia Mundi with Daniele Gatti conducting the Royal Philharmonic, stating that the performance generated more high-powered tension and white heat than I had heard in this work since Mravinsky. Taking nothing away from Gatti and the RPO in terms of interpretation or playing, I can say that the new Naïve release from Sokhiev and his Toulouse forces delivers equally satisfying performances in their own way and, additionally, as a recording, is nothing short of stunning.
Sonically, there is an openness and transparency that clarify the minutest details, provide solidity and weight to the bass, and give full bloom to the upper strings and winds—all of this without it sounding as if we were listening to individually spotlighted instruments instead of an integrated ensemble.
But the performances too are revelatory. Take the Mussorgsky, given in its familiar Ravel orchestration; familiar to a point perhaps, but rarely has the unnerving eeriness of it been brought to the fore quite like this. Listen to the slithering glissandos in the cellos, violas, and violins at the passage Ravel marks
arco sulla tastiera
(bow over the fingerboard) in “Gnomus”; or to the disembodied harp harmonics, piercing xylophone punctuations, and thudding bass pizzicatos in the same movement. Heard with the lights out in a darkened room, it’s as creepy, hair-raising, and spine-chilling as any horror movie music I know. In contrast, Sokhiev stretches the tempo of “Il vecchio castello” to a slower-than-usual Andante, transforming it into a gentle, rocking Siciliano-like lullaby, and providing saxophonist Philippe Lecocq ample opportunity to swathe us in his warm and rich tone. I could go on, movement by movement, point by point; but the upshot is that this
emerges as much more than your average, routine run-through of the score, and it puts new walking shoes on tired feet that have been too many times around this museum.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony vacillates agitatedly between the second and third stages of grief—anger and bargaining. The fourth and fifth stages—depression and acceptance—remain for the “Pathétique” to embrace. Depending upon how one interprets the Fourth, the balance between rage and entreaty will skew more towards one or the other. Sokhiev’s reading leans towards the latter. This is not to say that the massed brass eruptions and big climactic moments are underplayed, for there is plenty of power here. But it is in the contrasting passages of pleading that Sokhiev seems to linger and limn the lines with special care. I cannot recall another Tchaikovsky Fourth quite as heart-wrenching as this one. Listen, for example, to the swells in the cellos, beginning at 1:07 of the Andantino, as they top each phrase in their repetition of the opening oboe melody.
Some may find Sokhiev’s way with the score a bit exaggerated for their taste; and truth be told, he does take some liberties in terms of tempo and dynamic fluctuations. But there is nothing wrong in reminding us that this is, after all, Tchaikovsky, or in displaying a little heart on the sleeve. This will definitely be one of my favorite Fourths—as I believe it will be yours—but it’s an important enough work to be complemented by one or more other views. The aforementioned Mravinsky and Gatti offer outstanding alternative versions, as does Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonic on Philips. As for the
Pictures at an Exhibition
, in its Ravel orchestration, there is, in my opinion, no contest; Sokhiev is the current docent of choice to lead the tour through Mussorgsky’s gallery. This whole CD, from beginning to end, is a magnificent accomplishment. Purchasing it is an imperative.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in F minor, Op. 36 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra
Written: 1877-1878; Russia
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