Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1 in g,
The Snow Maiden:
Dmitri Kitaenko, cond; Cologne Gürzenich O
OEHMS OC668 (SACD: 60:40)
In 35:6, I couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe Kitaenko’s Tchaikovsky Fifth. I haven’t heard his Sixth (“Pathétique”), but Daniel Morrison, reviewing it in 35:1, reckoned it his unhesitating first choice. This latest release in Kitaenko’s
survey brings us the composer’s First Symphony, aptly titled “Winter Daydreams.”
It’s a bit unusual for a record company to invest in two brand new parallel cycles, but that’s exactly what Oehms has done. The competing cycle is the one with Christoph Poppen, whose First, Fourth, and Sixth I reviewed in 34:3, 33:3, and 35:4, respectively, finding myself not overly impressed by any of the three. In 36:1, however, Daniel Morrison gave Poppen’s Second and Third an enthusiastic endorsement, while in that same issue, Lynn René Bayley expressed feelings similar to mine about the conductor’s First, Fourth, and Sixth. Poppen’s Fifth has yet to appear.
Meanwhile, Kitaenko has yet to record the Second, Third, and Fourth. This whole business is further complicated by another ongoing cycle I’ve been following, Mikhail Pletnev’s with the Russian National Orchestra on PentaTone. Pletnev’s readings are not without controversy, but for performances of fevered pitch and recordings of unrivaled sonic impact, Pletnev and PentaTone have left me emotionally drained. Not since Daniele Gatti’s essaying of the last three symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic for Harmonia Mundi have any new versions of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies stunned me as Pletnev’s have. For whatever reason, though, Gatti does not seem to have given us the three early symphonies.
Whatever else one might say, it’s clear that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are more popular than ever with conductors and record companies. On top of those already mentioned, there are recent offerings from Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on BIS, Christoph Eschenbach with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Ondine, Paavo Järvi with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc, and Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics, and those are just the ones on SACD.
If Tchaikovsky had proceeded directly from his First Symphony to his Fourth, I’m not sure how great a loss we would count the Second and Third, the two weak links in the chain. “Winter Daydreams” is a masterful work, deserving of a place alongside the composer’s last three symphonies. Tchaikovsky worked on the score tirelessly for a number of years, continuing to revise, edit, and tweak it. David Brown, in
Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, 1840–1874
, quotes the composer’s brother Modest as saying that the First Symphony “cost Tchaikovsky more labor and suffering than any of his other works.” Yet as late as 1883, the composer writes of the piece in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck that “it has more substance and is better than any of my other more mature works.” That is not an inconsequential statement considering that by 1883 Tchaikovsky had already given birth to many of his most popular and beloved masterpieces, among them the First Piano Concerto,
Swan Lake, Eugene Onegin
, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the
Rococo Variations, Francesca da Rimini
Thus far, in my reviewing of Poppen and Pletnev’s unfolding Tchaikovsky symphony cycles, I see that Pletnev’s First didn’t earn the same high marks from me as did his Sixth and Second. I was more favorably disposed towards Poppen’s First, concluding that it was among the top contenders, though still not my all-time first pick, which is Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1970 recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
A trap many conductors seem to fall into when it comes to “Winter Daydreams”—and Kitaenko does not entirely avoid it here—is to treat the score as if it’s as neurotic and emotionally overwrought as the Fourth Symphony, but it’s not. It’s in a lighter, more lyrical, and almost balletic vein. Listen, for example, to the third movement, marked
Allegro scherzando giocoso
. In a program note to a 2009 performance of the work by Andrew Litton, leading the National Symphony Orchestra, annotator Paul Horsley summed it up to perfection in a commentary from which I freely quote: “While a wintry landscape is certainly one of the moods evoked by the G-Minor Symphony, there is nothing especially ‘desolate’ about the slow movement. A certain unlabored freshness pervades the symphony, a directness of expression that is sometimes lacking in Tchaikovsky’s later works. The scherzo contains something of Mendelssohn’s ‘elfin’ mood, though it is a highly original creation; its trio section, a lilting waltz, looks ahead to Tchaikovsky’s later ballet scores. And the appearance [in the last movement] of the folk tune ‘The Garden Blooms’ is perhaps the composer’s way of saying that, as in
The Snow Maiden
, winter’s icy grip has been eased, and spring is anon.”
Does anyone hear the word “innocent” in all of this, and could Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony be his “Pastoral” to Beethoven’s Sixth? The particularly striking beauty of Thomas’s now 43-year-old recording is that he got it; he intuited the connection between this score and Tchaikovsky’s later ballets. Kitaenko’s reading of the symphony, like Poppen’s, is a marvel of disciplined execution and kaleidoscopic orchestral color. But Kitaenko, like many others, occasionally overplays his hand, whipping up the emotional intensity to a fevered pitch, particularly so in the first movement’s development section and in the whirling, whirring mid-section pages of the finale. There’s no gainsaying that it’s an impressive performance in a rousing sort of way, but it strikes me as being a bit too big for Tchaikovsky’s britches.
Orchestral excerpts from
The Snow Maiden
make a fitting discmate for the symphony. Tchaikovsky composed this incidental music to Alexander Ostrovsky’s play in 1873, making it contemporary with the final revised version of “Winter Daydreams” completed in 1874. Kitaenko gives us three of the score’s 19 numbers: Introduction, Melodrama, and the popular Dance of the Tumblers. Ostrovsky’s play, of course, would serve Rimsky-Korsakov eight years later for the much better known opera by the same title.
If you’ve collected the first three releases in Kitaenko’s Tchaikovsky cycle—in addition to the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he’s also recorded the
—and you’ve been happy with his approach and the recordings, I see no reason not to recommend this new First to you. Still, outstanding as these new Tchaikovsky cycles by Kitaenko, Pletnev, Poppen, et al. are, they don’t render obsolete great versions of the past by Markevitch and Mravinsky, or noteworthy performances by Abbado, Karajan, and Ormandy, to name just three others.
There is such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, some
contributor ought to do the kind of in-depth survey like Richard Kaplan did in his overview of Sibelius’s symphonies, titled “Sibeliusaurus,” in 30:3. But don’t look at me, because my library of Tchaikovsky symphonies is not that extensive.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Snow Maiden, Op. 12: Prologue by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Written: 1873 ; Russia
Snow Maiden, Op. 12: Melodrama by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Written: 1873; Russia
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