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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877) [42:36]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [46:04]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [44:00]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Recorded: Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 17-21 October 2002 (Sym. 4), 2-4 September 2004 (Sym. 6); Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria, July 1998 (Sym. 5) DDD
PHILIPS 475 6315 0 PX3 [3 CDs: 42:36 + 46:04 + 44:00]
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"I think Tchaikovsky was always ready for immortality ... and with his final three symphonies he secured his place in the pantheon of Great Composers ... When recording live we go for energy, we go for excitement, and still, hopefully, we go for good musical quality." Valery Gergiev.

The Philips label have plundered their extensive back catalogue for this compilation of live accounts of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies extravagantly but cleanly presented one per disc. The recording of the Fifth Symphony has been popular in the Philips catalogue for some years and is one of the best-selling items in Gergiev’s discography.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, we are told, were recorded live in 2002 and 2004 respectively from performances at the Grosser Saal, Musikverein in Vienna; although neither of them seem to contain audience applause. The Fifth was taken down live and unpatched from a performance at the 1998 Salzburg Festival.

The Fourth was written at a particularly crucial point in Tchaikovsky’s life. 1877 was not only the year of his disastrous marriage but also the year in which he began his fifteen-year correspondence with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck.

The F minor Symphony has always been a popular work with its muscular melodic writing and pervading sense of ‘fate’ which Tchaikovsky believed controlled his destiny. In a letter to Madame von Meck he wrote, "the fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from achieving its goal ... which hangs above your head like the sword of Damocles."

There’s rather lacklustre playing in the first half of the opening movement. The power and passion increases as Gergiev cranks-up the intensity. The woodwind play splendidly and deserve special praise. Maestro Gergiev commences the second movement very slowly, gradually picking up the tempo, a device that he used in the opening movement. He is superb at providing the right amount of melancholy that leaves the listener with a real sense of despair and exhaustion. The Vienna strings are especially fine in the pizzicato sections of the scherzo and equally commendable are the woodwind in their spirited Russian dance. The mood of mild intoxication is splendidly caught. The concluding movement is performed excitingly with considerable skill and tremendous vitality. The Vienna brass awake from their slumber and roar with pride making the listener sit up and take special notice.

In this Fourth Symphony favourite versions from my collection are those from Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos CHAN 8361 c/w Romeo and Juliet (fantasy overture); Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw on Music & Arts mono CD809 c/w Syms. 5 and 6; Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1212 c/w Marche Slave and 1812 Overture; Mravinsky with the Leningrad PO on DG 419 745-2GH2 c/w Syms. 5 and 6 and Karajan with the VPO on Decca Penguin 460 655-2 c/w Romeo and Juliet (fantasy overture).

Tchaikovsky composed his Fifth Symphony in 1888 and is generally considered to be the most attractive of his major works. When he first began writing it Tchaikovsky was suffering from a deep depression. However, he moved to the countryside and his state of mind became much more relaxed, enjoying the peace and quiet and gaining a new found pleasure from his garden. This E minor Symphony reflects all the violent and conflicting emotions Tchaikovsky was experiencing at the time of its composition.

The Fifth opens in a sombre mood and Gergiev and the VPO claim an immediate emotional response with the ‘fate’ motif presented by clarinets and bassoons over light strings. The tense mood of resignation that verges on despair is expertly maintained. In the second movement Gergiev blends the principal elements of melancholy and beauty to great effect. In the infectious waltz, that the composer uses instead of the usual scherzo, Gergiev delightfully demonstrates lively and colourful playing. The powerful and triumphant mood of the concluding movement is sustained from its opening to the final bars. Remaining resolutely in control Gergiev resists the temptation to let the orchestra run away with Tchaikovsky’s magisterial events.

From my collection I highly rate the accounts of the Fifth from Jansons and the Oslo PO on Chandos CHAN 8351; Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1213 c/w Capriccio Italien; Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on DG 419 745-2GH2 c/w Syms. 4 and 6 and Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony SBK 46538 c/w Serenade for Strings.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, universally known as the Pathétique, is among his most deeply moving and profound works, an enduring masterwork which he considered to be his greatest composition. Once again the struggle against fate is central to this B minor work which was to be Tchaikovsky’s last. The première took place in October 1893 in St. Petersburg, and just eight days later the composer was dead. Few musical farewells are more poignant.

In the opening movement the famous heart-rending first theme is performed with wonderful expression and admirable control by the Vienna violins. With the recall of the opening theme Gergiev resists the temptation to wallow in the composer’s poignant emotions. The sombre melody for the brass over descending pizzicato strings that brings the movement to a conclusion is especially well performed. The scherzo is splendidly played as the infectious dance tune carried first by the cellos then by the woodwind both accompanied by pizzicato strings. The solemn mood of the trio is masterfully interpreted. I must single out the glorious string playing and the rich velvety timbre of the woodwind section. In the third movement the stirring march is built up with an impressive cyclonic power. Gergiev in the final movement provides a complete simplicity of despair, developing a desperate grief that gains in intensity and passion. With tremendous energy a maelstrom of emotions is created that can leave the listener shattered.

I have several favourite versions of the Pathétique from my own collection that I would not wish to be without. The account from Pletnev and the Russian National Orchetsra on DG 471 742-2 c/w Romeo and Juliet (fantasy overture); Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on Chandos CHAN 8446; Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1214 c/w The Storm overture and Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic on DG 419 745-2GH2 c/w Syms. 4 and 5. I am still fond of and regularly play my first recording of the work, which is on vinyl, from Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Camden Classics CCV 5024.

Those looking for a complete survey of Tchaikovsky’s Six Symphonies may wish to turn to Riccardo Muti’s set with the Philharmonia Orchestra. These recordings of the Symphonies were recorded for EMI in London between 1975-81 and are now available at super-budget price on Brilliant Classics 99792 c/w Manfred Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini, 1812 Overture, Swan Lake Suite and Serenade for Strings (with the Philharmonia Orchestra/Philadelphia Orchestra). Another complete set that I would also recommend are the accounts from Mariss Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos CHAN 86728 c/w Manfred Symphony and Capriccio Italien.

Opulent, dramatic and powerful performances. This well recorded Philips set would be a welcome addition to any collection.

Michael Cookson

see also review of Symphony 4 by John Phillips
review of symphony 6 by Marc Bridle



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