Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 2,
Christoph Poppen, cond; German RPO
OEHMS OC 762 (77:46) Live: Saarbrücken 6/27/2010, 6/1/2009
The Oehms label seems to be overdosing on Tchaikovsky symphonies, having two complete series in progress, one with the veteran Russian conductor Dmitry Kitaenko and the other with Christoph Poppen. I had high praise for Kitaenko’s “Pathétique” in
35:1, but I haven’t heard any of the prior releases in Poppen’s series—in fact, I haven’t heard any recordings by Poppen up to now. Here he tackles two of Tchaikovsky’s earlier and less celebrated symphonies, and although they may be lesser Tchaikovsky, they are still fine works, much superior in melodic inspiration and structural coherence, for example, to the “Ocean” Symphony of their composer’s mentor Anton Rubinstein, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
Tchaikovsky composed the original version of his Symphony No. 2 in 1872. The revised (and much improved) version, which is what we always hear today except in Geoffrey Simon’s Chandos recording of the original, was completed in 1878. The work acquired the designation “Little Russian” by virtue of its use of several Ukrainian folk melodies, Little Russia being a commonly used term for Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire. The Third Symphony arrived between these dates, in 1875. The subtitle “Polish,” which was not applied by the composer, derives from the marking
Tempo di polacca
in the fifth and final movement, but since the second movement, a waltz, is marked
(“in the German manner”), this work could with equal accuracy be labeled the “German.”
Poppen leads a very good performance of the “Little Russian” Symphony, close in quality to the best, among which I would include Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Chicago Symphony (Sony), Mstislav Rostropovich’s rendition with the London Philharmonic (EMI), and Carlo Maria Giulini’s venerable recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). Although predictably lacking the tonal weight and richness of the awesome Chicago band, the German Radio Philharmonic is a fine ensemble and plays with poise and precision, producing a clear, open texture with prominent winds. The strings seem a bit astringent, at least as recorded here. Winds and brass create a more consistently positive impression. In the “Little Russian,” the opening horn and bassoon solos are eloquently rendered, and the later exposed horn passages are also handled impressively. More eloquent and characterful wind playing can be heard in the second movement. Poppen’s tempos for this work are well chosen, generally on the quick side. He does not vary the tempo much, and is comparatively restrained in his use of vertical stresses, emphasizing instead forward momentum and continuity of line. The Scherzo is especially propulsive, and I like the way energy builds toward its peaks. The gong stroke in the final movement is comparatively subdued in volume but prolonged in duration, an effect I find more tasteful than in some performances. With timings similar to Abbado’s, Poppen offers a lighter, more balletic rendition, in contrast to the more massive and aggressive approach of both Abbado and Rostropovich. Giulini is the most urgent and forceful of all, almost violent in the finale.
After a thoroughly creditable interpretation of the “Little Russian,” Poppen delivers an outstanding one of the elusive “Polish” Symphony, a work surprisingly difficult to bring off in performance. I find Rostropovich, for example, less effective here. His weighty, muscular style seems unsuited to the work, resulting in a rather earthbound interpretation. I was also disappointed by Valery Gergiev’s performance with the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last autumn. Loren Maazel (Decca) draws a rather thick sonority from the 1960s Vienna Philharmonic and seems more dutiful than committed. Herbert von Karajan (DG) achieves only mixed results, his recording being notable mainly for an ethereal, ghostly Scherzo. Abbado (Sony) is better, but still somewhat disappointing. In the outer movements, the dark, string-dominated sonority he draws from his Chicago players is more heavyweight than is desirable here and lacks the needed transparency. Much of the third movement is taken too slowly and thus deprived of the eloquence and exaltation it can possess.
Poppen’s fleet, lithe, graceful treatment, on the other hand, is thoroughly persuasive. His tempo choices are unerring, and the transparent texture, prominent winds, and lively, committed, articulate playing of his orchestra are very satisfying. The first movement is urgent and energetic, building convincingly to exciting climaxes. The second-movement waltz has an appealing lilt and flow, while the third is appropriately graceful and elegiac, its lovely middle section eloquently shaped. The Scherzo is satisfyingly light and dance-like, while the finale is propulsive and exuberant, once again building at the end to genuine excitement rather than bombast. In Poppen’s hands, the “Polish” Symphony, often dismissed as Tchaikovsky’s weakest, emerges as a thoroughly convincing work. I haven’t heard all the recordings of this symphony, but the only one I know that matches Poppen’s in quality is that of Riccardo Muti (EMI), who secures precise and wonderfully refined playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra in a rendition that is highly charged without being overdriven.
The sound of the Oehms release is vivid, natural, clear, and free from harshness but a bit light in the bass, or perhaps that is a characteristic of the orchestra. This disc clearly surpasses the older recordings of Rostropovich, Muti, and especially Giulini in sound quality, but Abbado’s recording of the “Little Russian” holds its own.
I recommend this release enthusiastically as a coupling of these two symphonies and as an alternative or supplement to any of the other recommended versions mentioned above.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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