> Tchaikovsky - Symphony No.4 [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 [41.10]
Francesca da Rimini [22.50]
London SO/Georg Szell
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec 1971 (Francesca); 1972 (4)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 466 668-2 [64.00]





Szell's Tchaikovsky 4 has hardly ever been out of the catalogue such was its success. For years it reigned almost unchallenged at the SPA bargain-basement of the Decca catalogue.

Szell recorded it with the LSO at the end of his life continuing the same London connection that also gave birth to the famed EMI recording of Brahms' Double Concerto with Oistrakh and Rostropovich. Szell was predominantly a CBS (now Sony) artist but inhis final years he migrated from company to company.

This is a rollicking and yet seriously emphatic performance and the closing two minutes of the Moderato con anima are just one of many instances of undeniable evidence of a architecturally and dramatically logical approach. My latest encounter with the work was via the new Serebrier with the Bamberg Symphony (Bis). The Bis version fails to find quite the flame and thunder Szell achieves.

All of this is, of course, to the positive. The negative is that the sound does not open out in quite the way that the best Decca recordings of that time did and still do. When I compared this with the sound secured by Erik Smith's crew in the Vienna Sofiensaal in the 1964-68 sessions for Maazel's Sibelius cycle those older recordings come out as decidedly superior - more open and more analytically detailed. This may be a function of the hall but whether venue, orchestra, microphone array or some permutation of these the sound quality draws some attention to itself.

Mention of Maazel carries us naturally enough to his lanky Francesca which puts some flowingly lubricious woodwind playing on display across the illusion of a very broad soundstage. The string sound is again treble-heavy and just a little raw. The brass rip-snort and blare with Muscovite abandon and not once do you feel yourself sold short. This approach is couched in symphonic terms - not unpoetic but there is a feeling uncommon among Francesca interpretations that this is a major symphonic study.

The NPO were not one of Maazel's usual stable-mates but they make a convincing partnership here. The NPO recorded the same piece with the ailing Barbirolli a couple of years previously and clearly knew the piece well. This is then a good recording without the ecstatic wildness of Stokowski's New York Stadium effort (Everest), the wilful primeval voluptuousness of Golovanov (Boheme) or the raw volcanic power of Svetlanov (BMG-Melodiya). All of these are well worth hearing as are the Sian Edwards, Vernon Handley and Rostropovich versions. Francesca really is a very fine piece of creative work; resilient too - Yuri Ahronovich's capricious Royal Festival Hall performance with the LSO one warm summer evening in 1982 or 1983 was the best I have ever heard. It should be licensed from the BBC and issued. It would carry the day in face of even the most exalted studio competition.

Both the Maazel and the Szell recordings are highly imaginative and inspired. They will bring back good memories of the equivalent LPs. The recordings are only thirty years old but are starting to wear their years with that tell-tale hint of irritable treble syndrome. Don't let that put you off exploring, at a risibly negligible price, two resilient classics of the last complete decade of the LP.

Rob Barnett

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