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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No. 4 in f, Op 36 (1878) [43.36]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Sergiu Comissiona
Recorded 1981 at National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC, USA.
[ADD? or DADD?]
Notes in English: track list, technical and musical credits.
On screen extras: Technical documentary [6.15] speaker adjust utility [1.00]
DVD-Audio 2.0 and 5.1 sound, AC-3 Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound.
Originally released on the Vanguard label.
DVD-Audio plays on all DVD players

SILVERLINE 288229-9 [50.50]

Comparison Recordings:
Hermann Scherchen, VSOO [ADD] Westminster Urania 22.248
Rafael Kubelik, CSO Mercury monophonic LP [OP]
Artur Rodzinski, RPO [ADD] Westminster MCAD02-9829A
Herbert von Karajan, BPO [ADD] DGG 453 088-2
Mstislav Rostropovich, LPO [ADD] EMI 7243 5 65709 2 4
Valery Polyanski, Russian State SO Chandos CHAN 9608
Sir Georg Solti, CSO Decca 414 192-2

The 104 Symphonies of Haydn are, by modern standards, all just alike. The six Symphonies of Brahms divide nicely into two categories: The Lyrical Works (The two Serenades and "Number 2") and the Dramatic Works ("Numbers 1, 3, & 4"). Some wags divide Beethoven’s symphonies into two piles: The Ninth, and all the rest. Of the eight symphonies of Tchaikovsky, #1 is considered a student work because, even though its ideas are wonderfully original, it tends to make use of textbook solutions; #2 is considered "immature" for reasons I can’t fathom, since to me it seems to be in every way a perfect work; #3 is considered to be "experimental," I guess because it tries to go off in all directions at once and doesn’t actually arrive anywhere — I bet you can’t hum a single tune from it. When we arrive at #4 we have the "first mature" Symphony. Emotionally the Symphony is anything but mature tending to fly off the handle easily, and often seducing a conductor into inchoate frenzy in the finale. (Did Sir Adrian Boult conduct it? After the age of 30, I mean.) But perhaps because of its general resemblance in texture if not mood to the Fifth and Sixth, the Fourth has to be the first of something and the Sixth has to be mature since Tchaikovsky lost the ability to become any more mature immediately after the premiere.*

Tchaikovsky said his music should be performed as "though it were by Mozart." One can imagine the incredulous expression on Mozart’s face if he could hear that in reference to the Fourth Symphony. One could rate performances of this work with little thermometer pictures of the type you find on cans of pepper sauce, "Mild," "Medium," and "Hot."

Karajan makes of the work a perpetuum mobile and shows us how fast his orchestra can play it perfectly: an impressive, if somewhat cool, achievement. Their recording of this work for EMI was for a time available as a quadraphonic disk and may (or may not - EMI did some cheating around this time) exist as an original four channel master and hence could some day give some competition to this issue if it appeared on an EMI DVD-Audio. A more romantically-inclined conductor can shape the return of the opening motto in the last movement into a terrifying omen and draw an intense contrast between it and the ensuing peasant dance. Polyansky shapes the drama of the last movement quite affectingly, but with less terror that some can arouse. The digital sound of this Chandos issue is excellent, and it could some day emerge as an SACD. The Rostropovich performance is similar to the Polyansky and may represent a particularly Russian viewpoint. Stokowski’s only stereo recording of the work, on Vanguard, is an annoying travesty. In his 1951 monophonic version Scherchen achieves energy, balance, and feeling without any sense of rushing and in remarkably good and well restored sound for its age. His direct competition at the time was the Kubelik performance which is somewhat more urgent overall but also a well balanced approach with the advantage of the Chicago Orchestra brass section. But Kubelik’s 1951 one-microphone sound is simply beyond the horizon today as far as communicating this music is concerned; of interest to collectors only.

Of the two channel versions, Artur Rodzinski from 1959 gets both ears and the tail from me. He keeps up a high level of tension and shapes the dramatics brilliantly. Purists may sniff at the obvious multi-microphone recording technique, but at least you can really hear the snarling tubas! The orchestra actually sounds a little clearer than on the Chandos disk, even though the recording is forty years older! Solti’s 1985 version — four years newer than the Comissiona and definitely digital — shows off the splendid Chicago brass section (and huge bass drum) and achieves lyrical richness, grandeur and drama. Solti’s performance of the second movement Andantino in modo di canzona is an absolute miracle of expressive gentle sadness without bathos. Orchestral sound is full range and beautifully balanced. What a pity he turns the last forty bars into a Keystone Kops race to the finish line. Most people will probably find this version the most satisfactory overall.

Comissiona gives us a carefully shaped performance. He achieves at times the clear velocity of Karajan, generally the drama and tension of Rodzinski, and certainly receives the clearest sound quality, even on the regular DVD AC-3 tracks. His tubas snarl wonderfully. Unfortunately the sound has been slightly brightened artificially so you may wish to turn down the highs and turn up the bass a little.

Great Tchaikovsky recordings have generally resulted when orchestras and conductors got to know each other well over years, ideally in a tenured music director situation. This was the situation for which these works were composed. A conductor jetting in to conduct a Tchaikovsky Symphony after one rehearsal with an orchestra he doesn’t know — an orchestra who learned the parts in school — isn’t going to make it. This music requires familiarity and empathy. The phrases must be shaped and balanced with each other, the players must listen to each other. Comissiona was music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1985. This recording was made in 1981; the notes report both that it is from a digital master, and also that it has been digitised from an analogue master. Other recordings from this session are labelled analogue sound. Perhaps this recording was re-digitised after its analogue "enhancement" into surround sound.

I am happy to report that the famous Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato which used to be a minefield for unprepared orchestral string sections was played with crisp technical perfection by every one of these orchestras.

I was unable to obtain for comparison in a timely manner a copy of the recording with Jansons with the Oslo PO which is likely to have important virtues. And collectors will want to spice up their music gatherings with an occasional playing of the Dolmetsch baroque ensemble performance from the 1958 Hoffnung Festival of great moments from this symphony.

*To complete the set, Manfred is considered "merely a tone poem" and the remaining #7 was left "unfinished" and ended up as the Third Piano Concerto so, if we counted that, we’d have to give Brahms another symphony, too, the Op 15. Sibelius, of course, never wrote an un-Finnish symphony.

Paul Shoemaker

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