Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6,
Romeo and Juliet
Andris Nelsons, cond; City of Birmingham SO
It’s axiomatic to say that another recording of these warhorses was hardly necessary. But then it occurred to me that this is not really a fair statement. When I and other reviewers make this observation about new recordings of these and other standard-repertoire works, we’re actually looking at it from the
wrong end of the horse. From the viewpoint of the consumer who may already have half-a-dozen or more “Pathétiques” and
in his or her collection, a new arrival may be passed over with little attention paid to it; that’s true. But from the perspective of a conductor and his or her orchestra, they have every right and reason to offer their take on standard-repertoire works they’ve not previously documented on record. Simon Rattle, who led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1980 to 1998, did not, to the best of my knowledge, record a “Pathétique” or
with the orchestra, and neither did his successor, Sakari Oramo, who led the ensemble from 1998 to 2008. So it falls to the orchestra’s new conductor since 2008, Andris Nelsons, to put his and the CBSO’s stamp on these works.
In past reviews, I’ve been highly impressed by Daniele Gatti’s recent Tchaikovsky with the Royal Philharmonic on Harmonia Mundi. So it was with great pleasure that I read Boyd Pomeroy’s review in
34:4 of the boxing-up into a three-CD set Gatti’s account of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies and other orchestral works. “Some of the most distinctive Tchaikovsky recordings of the digital era—vitally original rethinkings of these trusty warhorses, with an exhilarating freshness, exciting sweep, and impressive cogency,” Pomeroy said, and I thoroughly agree. In fact, for me, Gatti’s Tchaikovsky is the most electrifying to come along since Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and that was a long time ago—1960, to be exact.
In 33:3, I reviewed Nelsons’s prequel to the current release, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and
Overture, with these same forces. I noted that it was one of the more spectacular CDs to come my way in some time, with an awesome dynamic range. That holds true of this new disc as well. Also noted was the very impressive performance of the symphony, which would and should have garnered the strongest recommendation but for one fatal flaw, the unfortunate bungling of the famous horn solo in the second movement by the orchestra’s principal horn player. What this told me was that the CBSO, though unquestionably one of the U.K.’s better ensembles, was still not quite on a par with its London counterparts. The players, however, are not entirely to blame. The orchestra has experienced a succession of conductors over the years, not all of them exactly top-rank.
Andris Nelsons is clearly a talented conductor on his way up, so it remains to be seen how long he will remain at the CBSO’s helm. No mishaps like the one in the Fifth Symphony occur on the present disc. These performances are absolutely first-class. However, in comparing Nelsons’s
Romeo and Juliet
with Gatti’s an interesting divergence of interpretations surfaces. Gatti, like many before him, whips up a lot of excitement going for the dramatic tension in the score between the feuding families. Nelsons is not short on drama, but he also brings to the piece an unexpected balletic or choreographed feel. Though Tchaikovsky’s three great ballets were still years in the offing when he originally composed the
Romeo and Juliet
fantasy-overture in 1869 (he twice revised it, in 1870 and again in 1880), Nelsons finds in the score both musical and literary elements that would appear in
. The seemingly unlikely balletic aspects of
Romeo and Juliet
must not have been lost on Prokofiev, who actually did turn the story into a ballet.
Anecdotal narratives have grown up around Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” to try to make the music fit certain preconceived notions we have of the composer’s intended but never spelled-out program for the work and his presumed profound emotional depression at the time he wrote it. But such notions may not jibe with the facts. First, it wasn’t Tchaikovsky, but his brother Modest, who gave the symphony its rather mawkish title. And second, in a letter to his publisher upon completing the piece, the composer wrote, “I can honestly say that never in my life have I been so pleased with myself, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have done something so good.” And to his other brother, Anatoly, he wrote, “I think this symphony is the best of my compositions.” Hardly sounds like a man in despair on the brink of suicide. Geoffrey Norris points out in his booklet note that the Russian word Modest attached as a title,
, does not mean “pathetic” or “piteous” as it does in English, but rather “emotional” and “passionate.”
Far be it from me to overturn more than 100 years of donning sackcloth and ashes to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony—we have to have some beliefs to hold on to—but it may be that our efforts to understand and explain the work are inextricably linked to justifying its Adagio lamentoso finale. Ending a symphony in a slow tempo was not unprecedented—Haydn did it in his “Farewell” Symphony, and there are probably other examples as well—but in 1893 it was still quite unusual. Then too, the “lamentoso” indication and the dying-away heartbeat at the end make it clear that the movement was not meant to be a rousing grand finale. Still, considering the cheerful mood of Tchaikovsky’s aforementioned letters at the time, it may be presumptuous of us to speculate on his state of mind.
I like Nelsons’s reading for, among other reasons, the fact that it’s not overwrought. As in his
Romeo and Juliet
, there’s drama where it’s called for, but it’s balanced by a feeling of almost classical elegance and poise. The offbeat 5/4 waltz movement (Allegro con grazia) has a wonderful lilt to it that put me in mind of the
“Waltz of the Flowers.” The Allegro molto vivace is another one of those killer symphonic movements that puts almost inhuman demands on the players. But Nelsons is undaunted; he charges full steam ahead, crossing the finish line in 8:41, faster than just about anyone else I know except for Gatti, who comes in at 8:31, and speed demon Mravinsky, who beats them both at an incredible 8:19. Even Abbado, who’s no slowpoke, takes 9:03. Fastest of all, at least among the versions I have, is Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonic. He breezes through the movement in 8:13; yet, overall, I find Gergiev’s reading of the symphony and the Philips SACD recording of it the least satisfying of them all. There’s a slick, superfluous feeling to it I don’t like. The Vienna players did better by Tchaikovsky under Karajan.
Nelson’s finale manages to be “lamentoso” without falling into the trap of being “lugubrioso.” He keeps it moving and, again, brings a certain stately bearing to the music that avoids self-pity.
Orfeo’s recording is, as it was for Nelsons’s Fifth, a stunning state-of-the-art accomplishment, even if it isn’t an SACD. Should you go with Nelsons or Gatti? I don’t know. Play it safe and get them both; they’re different enough to warrant the duplication.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Romeo and Juliet Overture by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1869/1880; Russia
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