TCHAIKOVSKY Symphonies: No. 1, “Winter Dreams1”; No. 2, “Little Russian2”; No. 3, “Polish3” • Valery Gergiev, cond; London SO • LSO LIVE LS00710 (2 SACDs: 125:56) Live: London 11/18 and 1/23/2011; 2Read more class="ARIAL12">3/23-24/2011; 3Zürich 5/20/2011
Valery Gergiev has made multiple recordings of the later Tchaikovsky symphonies, most recently in video form with the Mariinsky Orchestra, on that organization’s proprietary label. He earlier recorded these three works with the Vienna Philharmonic (originally on Philips, subsequently reissued on Decca). Still earlier, he recorded the “Pathétique” Symphony for Philips with the Mariinsky Orchestra when it was still using the name Kirov for foreign consumption, and that recording remains available. In addition, performances of Nos. 4 and 5 by Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic were included in two commemorative sets issued by that orchestra. With the London Symphony performances under review here, recorded in 2011 at the Barbican in London (Nos. 1 and 2) and the Zürich Tonhalle (No. 3), the three earlier symphonies appear in his discography for the first time. This record suggests that Gergiev has given much less attention to the earlier symphonies, although he did perform all the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October 2011, and I assume that these performances were repeated in other venues as well. One would expect this conductor to be an authoritative interpreter of Tchaikovsky, but in my experience the results have been mixed. The Carnegie Hall performances were characterized by marked and rather abrupt shifts in tempo within movements, which sometimes seemed defensible (in No. 5) and sometimes excessive (No. 4). The Vienna Philharmonic recordings also display such gear-shifting, although to a less extreme degree. Fortunately, the performances in this new set are thoroughly persuasive.
In the “Winter Dreams” Symphony, Gergiev delivers a massive, propulsive statement of the first movement, less headlong and exuberant but more majestic than one by that other Russian conductor in command of a British orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic (on that orchestra’s own label, in a two-disc set coupled with a superb “Pathétique”). While Jurowski accords much prominence to his winds, the texture in Gergiev’s performance is more string-dominated, and the LSO strings are weightier and less sensuous than their LPO counterparts. There is a good deal of flexibility in Gergiev’s tempo control but only one fairly abrupt shift, in the second subject of the exposition, and overall this movement is very convincingly shaped. Gergiev paces the slow movement more deliberately than Jurowski but maintains a sense of continuity and flow through subtle tempo adjustments and effective shaping of phrases, successfully conjuring a dreamlike atmosphere. Gergiev takes the Scherzo and the Trio as well at a brisk pace (the same tempo marking applies to both), but the Trio is nonetheless satisfyingly graceful and flowing. After a very deliberate, brooding, and mysterious introduction, the main body of the finale is again massive and propulsive, with powerful climaxes, bringing this excellent performance to an exciting conclusion. As for other desirable recordings, Jurowski’s is the quickest, liveliest, and most spontaneous, with alert, involved playing by his orchestra and excellent sound. In Claudio Abbado’s recording (Sony), the playing of the Chicago Symphony is predictably excellent, and the orchestra’s dark, weighty, bass-oriented sonority combines with the conductor’s patrician reserve to produce a grand, magisterial statement. Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI) is steady, deliberate, probing, and detailed in the first movement but quicker than the norm in the Scherzo and excitingly headlong in the main body of the finale. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with the Boston Symphony (DG), one of his first recorded performances, is a favorite of many. I recall hearing it several times decades ago and thinking it excellent but am surprised to find that I never added it to my collection. I haven’t heard the recent recordings by Dmitry Kitaenko and Christoph Poppen (both on Oehms), although I have been very favorably impressed by their performances of some other Tchaikovsky symphonies.
Gergiev’s reading of the “Little Russian” Symphony opens with slightly choppy phrasing by the solo horn. The main tempo for the first movement is not that fast (in fact, his timing for this movement is the longest by a substantial margin among the seven performances I compared), but there is no lack of propulsion, and strong accents, tonal weight, and eloquent, precisely articulated playing by the orchestra contribute to a cogent, forceful statement and a steady buildup of momentum and tension. The second movement is stately but still propulsive, with excellent wind playing. The Scherzo is not too fast, but urgent enough, once again with strong accents and clear articulation. The Finale opens forcefully, at a comparatively rapid pace. The main tempo for the movement is relatively fast, but there are some noticeable shifts that effectively characterize the sections involved and are not excessive. Gergiev’s interpretation of this symphony has more in common with what I termed (in reviewing Poppen’s recording in 36:1) the “massive and aggressive approach” of Abbado and Rostropovich than with Poppen’s “lighter, more balletic rendition.” All of those recordings are recommended, as are the urgent, hard-driving interpretations of Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti (both with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI).
In reviewing Poppen’s recording of the “Polish” Symphony in the same issue, I complained about heavy-handed treatment of this elusive work by some conductors but praised Poppen and Muti (EMI) for avoiding that pitfall. I was not especially impressed by Gergiev’s Carnegie Hall performance of this work, finding that it did not really bring the piece to life. The LSO recording seems much more successful, although whether it is all that different or whether I am just perceiving it differently and grasping it more thoroughly, after repeated hearings, is hard to determine. Gergiev’s pacing is considerably broader than Poppen’s or Muti’s, but the piece is not unduly weighted down. In the lengthy first movement, after a slow and mysterious introduction, Gergiev delivers a grandly assertive statement, with momentum building to a convincing climax. The texture, although string-dominated, is clear and detailed. The second-movement waltz is lilting and graceful, with tempo adjustments that work well. The Andante elegiaco third movement, the loveliest and most magical one in the score, is taken mostly at a very deliberate pace but sustains continuity and succeeds in generating an enchanted, otherworldly atmosphere, culminating in a rapturous climax. Here too inflections of tempo are skillfully applied for expressive purposes. The elfin Scherzo is dispatched with perfection, in a manner that underlines its kinship to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, and is followed by an expansive, majestic, and ultimately exuberant Finale. This excellent performance is a viable alternative to the lighter, quicker approach of Poppen and Muti. While Poppen tends to hold firmly to a set tempo, Gergiev’s more flexible shaping of the score is often rewarding, as is the richer, weightier string sound of his orchestra, which contributes tonal solidity without undue heaviness.
The sound quality of LSO Live recordings has often been criticized, with deficiencies attributed to the unsatisfactory acoustics of the orchestra’s home venue, the Barbican. I find the sound of this set, heard in its SACD stereo guise, actually to be quite good. True, it lacks the open and spacious quality of many SACD recordings, but it is vivid and realistic, with plenty of impact and adequate clarity and detail. Best results are achieved with playback at high volume, which is feasible because the recording is very free from harshness and excessive brightness. The Third Symphony, recorded in the Zürich Tonhalle, does offer a more open and spacious but slightly less focused sound. Switching to the CD layer on any of these recordings contracts the soundstage somewhat and entails a sacrifice in detail, definition, and bass presence. Once again I must remind the reader interested in multichannel sound that I do not have the equipment needed to evaluate that format.
Once neglected and dismissed as inconsequential, Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies are these days amply represented in the catalog, but this set is a valuable addition to their discography. Gergiev’s interpretations are among the most satisfying I’ve encountered and, especially in their SACD form, are superior in sound quality to many of the older accounts that offer comparably fine performances.
Tchaikovsky's First Three SymphoniesApril 21, 2013By Archibald S. (Boulder, CO)See All My Reviews"Symphonies No. 1 and 2 are not very interesting, with rather limited development of the thematic material. No. 3 is much more interesting, sounding more like later works, but not so sentimental in character. This is a five movement symphony. The first movement is a little busy, but builds to strong climaxes. The second movemet has a lovely waltz-like dance theme. The 3rd movement is an expressive, heartfelt andante, with outstanding woodwind passages. The 4th movement, a scherzo, has a mysterious feeling, but the trio is a contrasting playful interlude. The 5th movement opens with a grand Polonaise-like theme. It continues with a celebratory feeling, including a fugue, and the builds to a tremendous climax at the end. The London Symphony comes through with a rousing performance which will test your playback system. I played the SACD stereo version only."Report Abuse
DreadfulMarch 12, 2013By David R. (Pine, CO)See All My Reviews"A most diasppointing release. Gergiev's way with putting his mark on these symphonies is to require his strings to play everything on-the-string and smooth it all out like molasses. Then add Mahlerian slow tempi and muffled, over-smooth recording quality and you've got the most boring Tchaikovsky imaginable. This approach makes absolutely no musical sense and I can't understand why the LSO would stand for it. Indeed, the tempi are certainly a big part of the problem. Slow movements, and slow introductions to others, are funereal. Alegros are relaxing walks in the park. And that thick, long-bow, on-the-string sound he dredges from the strings is just awful. The only movement with a good tempo is the finale of the 1st Symphony, taken at a nice tempo (after the crawling-through-drying-cement, slow introduction). Unfortunately, the SACD sound of this LSO live recording just makes it worse - lacking in sparkle or any kind of life. Of course, it would be a miraculous recording team indeed that could bring any kind of life to these readings. A dreadful set in every way. The audience that night must have slept very well indeed after this concert."Report Abuse
Superb.November 21, 2012By John W. (Woori Yallock Vic., Australia)See All My Reviews"The sound produced here is excellent, and the interpretations of these first three Tchaikovsky Symphonies are sparkling.Though not as popular as his 5th and 6th Symphonies, one is always rewarded by revisiting them,in a style rarely excelled as heard here. This is a wonderful buy."Report Abuse
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