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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Symphonies

CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 “Winter Dreams” (1866) [45:10]
Francesca da Rimini — Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 32 (1876) [25:29]*
CD 2

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 “Little Russian” (1872) [34:49]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 “Polish” (1875) [46:29] (start)
CD 3

Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 “Polish” (1875) [46:29] (end)
Romeo and Juliet — Fantasy Overture (1869/1880) [22:41]*
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877) [44:46]
CD 4

Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58 (1885) [60:11]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique” (1893) [45:18] (start)
CD 5
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique” (1893) [45:18] (end)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [52:01]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, October 1976, *Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 1977.
EMI CLASSICS 5194932 [5 CDs: 70:47 + 72:32 + 76:43 + 79:09 + 78:34] 


Experience Classicsonline

If there’s one benefit to the general stalling of major labels’ new recording projects, it’s the chance to explore back catalogues for overlooked gems. This bargain box set of the Tchaikovsky’s symphonies led by Mstislav Rostropovich is a good example of the sort of illumination that can be found in reconsidering older recordings. Originally set down in 1976 and released on record, it appeared only briefly on CD in the mid-1990s, so this issue may be its best chance yet to gain a following. 

When it was originally released, the Rostropovich cycle had some adherents, though many criticized its broad tempos. Thirty years on, what makes even more of an impact than the spacious speeds are the rich, full sounds Rostropovich encourages the London Philharmonic to make. In some ways, it must have been one of those great artistic “cross pollinations”, as this was an orchestra accustomed at that time to the restraint of Sir Adrian Boult and Bernard Haitink, or the athleticism of Sir Georg Solti. Rostropovich’s bear-hug of warmth drew radiant, creamy sound from the strings, which is no surprise, considering that his first career was as one of the foremost cellists of the twentieth century. But he extends that palette throughout the orchestra. 

This makes such a vivid impact now because the trend over the last thirty years has been for conductors to winnow away rich, dense orchestral sound and replace it with something far sleeker. Indeed, Rostropovich was already something of a throwback when he recorded this cycle, as Antal Dorati and Lorin Maazel had already made revisionist cycles by then. Muti started a much sleeker cycle (also for EMI) shortly after these recordings, though, inexplicably, they’re not recorded nearly as well. Then in the eighties came the full sea-change, led by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos in lean and lithe performances that set the modern standard. Abbado followed with a similar cycle in Chicago. Most modern versions now feature the familiar style: swift tempos, emotional restraint, and lean orchestral sound with a silky sheen. 

Rostropovich, conversely, is broad, visionary, saturated. That is not to say that his set is the ultimate that could be achieved in this direction. Indeed, parts of it miss the mark fairly widely, and there are notable late recordings by Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu Celibidache that go much further in the visionary direction. But what is so refreshing about this cycle is the sense of openness and sincerity. As an instrumental player who was only beginning to make the transition to the podium, Rostropovich seems happy to encourage the players. He holds the reins loosely in places, letting the orchestra become an active partner in creating the performance. This leads to a few clunky transitions, but it also results in performances that have an alert, organic feel. Instead of a hundred bored musicians, one senses a hundred engaged — if occasionally skeptical — players. And there probably was some skepticism, as Rostropovich came late to conducting and never became a technical wizard along the lines of a Maazel or an Ozawa. On the other hand, his performances were rarely plagued with the sense of bored perfection that has so often crept into those conductors’ recordings. 

Rostropovich’s Tchaikovsky First is one of the highlights of the set because he commits to the piece’s aspirations and doesn’t obsess over its youthful flaws unlike, say, Karajan, who seemed afraid to take the finale to extremes. Likewise, Jansons and Abbado concern themselves with transitions and forward flow, whereas Rostropovich is not averse to lingering, particularly in the slow movement, where he finds visionary breadth, not unlike the superb Temirkanov recording on RCA from the early nineties. In the end, my choice performance for this work is Antal Dorati on Mercury, who doesn’t treat it as a lightweight, yet still manages to keep it tersely focused and to the point. Rostropovich stands among the finest here. 

That same spaciousness of conception, however, does no great favors for the Second, which truly is a lighter work, delightful though it is. Here I like the drive of Dorati, the galvanized excitement of the young Giulini - though his EMI early stereo recording isn’t sonically rich, and he makes a cut in the finale - or the punchy attack of Svetlanov’s 1967 Melodiya recording. If one must go on the slow side, then the way to pull it off is to really grind it out, like Markevitch and the LSO on Philips. Rostropovich’s version of the second movement march is fairly laid-back, especially when compared to the dash made by Bernstein: 6:06 to Rostropovich’s 7:41. On the other hand, several are slower than Slava, not to mention Beecham, whose recording I have heard though I don’t have a timing for it. 

Tchaikovsky’s Third is arguably the most elusive of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, but I’d credit Rostropovich with getting more to the heart of it than most. This work is where Dorati is weakest, opting for a light, balletic approach, when there is arguably room for more substance here than first meets the eye. Accordingly, Rostropovich takes the central slow movement quite slowly, almost as slowly as Ormandy and Svetlanov, allowing it time to build its lonely moods. Unlike those two conductors, though, Rostropovich precedes it with a leisurely Alla tedesca waltz, which gives hints of melancholy. For a true ‘valse triste,’ Temirkanov’s astonishing eleven-minute traversal of the Alla tedesca should be heard. Rostropovich also elicits a beguiling atmosphere in the Scherzo, making his recording a top contender in the Third

Moving into the later symphonies, competition becomes tremendous. Rostropovich’s Fourth is again broad and grand, unlike the feisty drive of Maazel or Dorati, nor does it have the fanatical intensity of Mravinsky’s alternately manic and depressive performance on DG. But again, its broadness holds considerable warmth without resorting to exaggeration for effect. The first movement never quite catches fire until Rostropovich’s impulsive coda, thus it may seem a slow burn compared to those used to Maazel, Monteux, Rodzinski or any number of non-Russian conductors. Best of all is the powerful finale, where he keeps a firm pace, letting the brass pour their energy into a big, full sound. 

Rostropovich’s grand manner works its best in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, giving Tchaikovsky’s score epic horizons. It’s really amazing, considering how often this work has been played and recorded over the years, that few conductors have tried such a broad, visionary approach to this music. In some ways, Rostropovich reminds me of the broad, oft-derided recording Boult made with the LPO in the 1950s, though twenty years on, the orchestra seems much more capable of taking broad tempos in its stride. But this is great music, and it can handle distinctive visions. Whether Tchaikovsky would have liked such tempos is questionable - though there are those who claim that the current western printed editions are riddled with errors. Nevertheless I find them intriguing. The first movement becomes an epic structure, slowly gathering momentum for its militaristic coda. Rostropovich glides into an Andante cantabile that is slow, but wisely not too slow, allowing for a flexibility that builds up considerable emotional tension. My favorite version of the slow movement remains the incredibly lithe and flexible version Claudio Abbado achieved with the Chicago Symphony in the mid-1980s. The Finale again opens with an unusually broad tempo, immediately summoning wide-horizoned images to the imagination. Rostropovich again builds his energy, playing up the conflict of the music instead of skating over it at breakneck speed. His coda is luscious and juicy, which works wonderfully here, unlike in the Igor Markevitch recording, where the lush coda following an almost grimly ascetic performance sounds absurd. 

Surprisingly, Rostropovich is not as broad in the Pathétique as one might expect, particularly after the visionary Fifth. Perhaps it would have benefited from some extra space. The finale, in particular, seems too flowing to truly take root, though I must confess to being a fan of slow versions of this finale. Since Rostropovich’s tempos come across as moderate, he runs into competition from Bernard Haitink, who proved just how powerful a restrained, shrewd rendition of this work can be. For higher intensity, Mravinsky is the benchmark, though the frenzied Mitropoulos/New York Philharmonic recording is a fascinating early stereo recording, if you can find it. Perhaps the finest virtually unknown performance of the work is one made a few years ago for the Pope Music label by Russian conductor Mark Gorenstein and the Russian Symphony Orchestra. The performance is alternately brilliant and bleak, recorded in gorgeous digital sound. It’s somewhat hard to find because it was marketed confusingly, with the cover bearing only the word “Farewell,” and it was never mass-produced. It is well worth the search, though, and ample proof in itself that there’s at least one great conductor still in Russia that the West has yet to discover. 

This set also contains some not-insubstantial bonuses, including a magnificent version of the programmatic Manfred Symphony just as spacious as the numbered symphonies. This work requires the spirit of the moment to carry the day, thus my favorite version remains the live recording of a concert of the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel in 1972 which the orchestra put out on a deluxe box set in 1993 before everyone and their neighbor was producing in-house releases. Maazel can be arch and arbitrary when he gets bored, but when he clicks in, he can be blindingly good, and that concert shows how well the episodic Manfred suits Maazel’s restlessness. Rostropovich goes again for a broad, epic view, which provides some interesting alternative approaches to this music, including the slowest version of the Finale which I have heard. Instead of trying to barrel through the movement with sheer momentum, Rostropovich gives it space, letting every section make a strong, declamatory impact, which starts to make all “normal” renditions of the movement facile. This set also includes a passionate Francesca da Rimini, and one of the few truly moving performances of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture I’ve ever heard. 

Despite the arguable missteps in the Second and Sixth, this is a welcome and engaging set, priced very nicely. I’m glad to reserve it some space on my shelf, especially as it preserves a kind of rich, luscious orchestral sound that is fast disappearing. The discs are well-filled and are handsomely remastered, keeping the warmth of the original LP releases, while offering a new clarity and space.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


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