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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphonies Nos. 4-6

Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36 (1877) [42:36]
(1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima - Moderato assai , quasi andante – Allegro vivo [18:56]; 2. Andantino in modo di canzona [9:34]; 3. Scherzo, Pizzicato Ostinato – Allegro [5:33]; 4. Finale. Allegro con fuoco [8:28])
Symphony no.5 in E minor, op.64 (1888) [46:04]
(1. Andante – Allegro con anima [14:48]; 2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza – Moderato con anima [13:25]; 3. Valse. Allegro moderato [5:29]; 4. Finale. Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace [12:25])
Symphony no.6 in B minor, op.74 Pathétique (1893) [44:00]
(1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo [18:19]; 2. Allegro con grazia [6:59]; 3. Allegro molto vivace [8:13]; 4. Finale. Adagio lamentoso – Andante [10:28])
Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna 17-21 October 2002 (4), 2-4 September 2004 (6); Festspielhaus, Salzburg, July 1998, ORF recording, Salzburg Festival. DDD
PHILIPS 475 6315 [3 CDs: 42:36 + 46:04 + 44:00]

Valery Gergiev, though undeniably charismatic, is not everyone’s cup of tea as a conductor. Speaking to an experienced orchestral musician recently, I was struck by his low opinion of the Russian maestro; "..all those fluttering fingers – what are they for?", he fumed, "heavens, the job’s difficult enough as it is without unnecessary distractions from the very person who is supposed to be there to help!". Sometimes, it does indeed seem that Gergiev has been reading accounts of totemic conductors of the past – Furtwängler in particular – and has adopted some of the externals of their styles.

That may or may not be fair; the acid test is to be found in the musical results he obtains. These too are variable, though there is no denying the expressive power of his best work. The three Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded here have the potential benefit of having been taken from live performances. For a number of reasons, the Fifth is the least successful; for one thing, no conductor has ever, for me, managed to conceal the comparative weakness of the work itself, its structure comprising conventionality spiked with gimmickry, its conclusion strident yet unconvincing. Then there’s the recording, which is poorly balanced, the brass often obscuring important detail. I’m quite sure it didn’t sound as bad as this live.

On the credit side, the other two symphonies receive genuinely fine performances. The Fourth, composed at a time of crisis in Tchaikovsky’s life, has a first movement which is a true masterpiece of symphonic composition, and is effectively a symphonic poem in its own right. Gergiev allows it to unfold with dignity, yet injects real drama into the feverish climax at its heart. In taking this approach, he avoids some of the gratuitous tempo fluctuations which many interpreters lazily adopt.

The slow movement suffers from that acrid Viennese oboe tone, making the great solo at its start rather hard to listen to. In spite of this, however, Gergiev still manages to capture the feeling of fireside nostalgia. The remaining two movements are equally good, though this symphony always suffers from the fact that, after the high anxiety and drama of the first movement, the remaining three inevitably feel anticlimactic. Not much a conductor can do about that, but Gergiev and his players do their best to make the music eventful and highly coloured.

The recording of the Pathétique is in many ways the most interesting. The concert at which it was made took place on the day the news broke internationally of the Beslan siege. Gergiev was born in that part of the world, and clearly felt especially deeply the horrific fate of those children. Of course one can never say for certain how much such circumstances really affect the nature of a performance. Suffice to say that this does seem to me a particularly deeply felt and high-octane account. There are lapses, such as the impetuous rushes of the first movement’s beautiful second theme, or the poorly defined opening of the 5/4 Allegro con grazia. But the famous march is genuinely thrilling, while the magnificent grief-stricken finale has grandeur as well as sorrow. This is greatly assisted by the glory of the VPO’s string tone, which is as sumptuous and as plangent as ever.

A bit of a mixed box, then, but containing versions of the fourth and sixth symphonies which are very fine, and which have the virtues of live performance while avoiding some of the acoustic pitfalls this can sometimes bring.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Michael Cookson



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