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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet [20:51]
Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74 [49:43]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Romeo and Juliet)
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony)
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Recorded September 1989 at All Saints’ Church, Tooting, England (Romeo) and April 8,9, and 11 1992 at Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg. (Symphony)
BMG-RCA 82876 62320 2 [70:43]

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It was the lesser known and now practically ignored Mili Balakirev that prodded a then thirty-year-old Tchaikovsky to compose a work based on Shakespeare’s most famous of love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. Although he wrote the bulk of the music in 1869, it is the aftermath of two revisions that culminated in the 1880 version that we hear today.

The Sixth Symphony is the composer’s final work. Intended to be programmatic, Tchaikovsky decided to keep the program a secret and let posterity guess as to what he was attempting to convey. It was his brother Modest that came up with the title of Pathétique, of which Tchaikovsky approved briefly but then rejected. Nine days after conducting the first performance, the composer died, allegedly of cholera. Now, of course, the cause of his death is a subject of vast controversy and intrigue.

This disc is a combination of two previous releases dating from over a decade ago.

From a purely musical standpoint, the release is a hit and somewhat of a miss with varied performances of these burnished warhorses under the spirited and able baton of Yuri Temirkanov. Impressive in his understatement, he captures the Russian spirit in this refined and restrained rendition of Romeo and Juliet. There is all the romanticism that one could desire in this performance, thankfully without things ever getting out of hand. The Londoners play with a rich warm tone and fine balance.

Temirkanov maintains the same tasteful restraint in the opening movement of the symphony, never allowing the emotions to run unchecked. In particular, this conductor seems to have a way with string sections, drawing from them a lush, unified tone. In louder passages however, the brass are less wieldy, and their rather short jabs at the notes are a bit off-putting. When the action gets going, the trumpets blare away in the stereotypical uncouth Russian manner. I cannot say as I was overly impressed with the winds’ intonation either, particularly the clarinet.

Things begin to fare better in the elegant second movement, one of music’s most clever constructions, a waltz in 5/4 time. The pace is graceful and all the technical issues of intonation and tone are in good order. The rollicking third movement receives a good treatment, however, there are still the rather annoying issues of brass intonation. They never seem to come to the core of the pitch, particularly in more rapid passages and the big upward scales with which this movement abounds.

Temirkanov is well aware of the sense of resignation to fate in the last movement, and he delivers this music with the all of the necessary gravitas. There are some remarkable improvements in the overall sound of this orchestra as the symphony concludes, except for the first trumpet, who throughout the symphony has had a tendency to blare, and does not fail to disappoint here.

The concept of this performance is certainly interesting and valid, and it is obvious that Temirkanov knows the tradition, the style and the score intimately. Alas, he simply needs a better instrument. One is left to wonder just what would have happened with the London Philharmonic given the excellence of the work recorded with them.

Kevin Sutton


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