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
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.