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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Symphonies

Symphony No.1 in G minor Op.13 Winter Daydreams (1866) [42.02]
Symphony No.2 in C minor Op.17 Little Russian (1872) [34.31]
Symphony No.3 in D major Op.29 (1875) [45.47]
Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36 (1885) [39.58]
Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64 (1888) [47.31]
Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.74 Pathétique (1893) [45.36]
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1967, Moscow. ADD
AULOS MUSIC AMC2-057 [4 CDs: 72.28 + 62.55 + 74.29 + 45.41]
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Yes, it’s out on Aulos, the fabled Svetlanov cycle of 1967. It’s a pity that the earlier 1961 Manfred isn’t here as well though one can understand the reasoning and it has been available as a "single" over the years. Still, few drove Manfred like Svetlanov. Come to that few drove the symphonies like Svetlanov. I last saw the set on Melodiya issued over a decade ago though the first three symphonies were also issued somewhat later in the 1990s in a separate Melodiya box in America. Various symphonies have made appearances as well on isolated discs such as the Fifth on CDKM (who also issued a bumper box of most if not all the Svetlanov Tchaikovsky) and doubtless other labels have licensed them as well. Now it’s Aulos’s turn and they have had access to the master tapes as they’ve had in their previous releases of discs by such as Shafran, Pletnev, Oistrakh and others.

The sound therefore is clear and unimpeded by the kinds of extraneous detritus that can afflict badly dealt with LP transfers. Nevertheless, as collectors will know, little can really be done to mitigate the deficiencies of the original set up – the most noticeable of which are a blare in the brass, some muddied inner voicings, and a certain amount of compression. The idiosyncrasies of the playing won’t have escaped anyone’s attention. The strings are generally fine, especially the violas and cellos, though they’re not always as tidy as the tidiest of the rivals. The winds are a characterful though rather inconsistent bunch and suffer from poor intonation. The principal oboe was not at his best in the recording of the Fourth and the principal clarinet could be hit and miss (though when he hits he hits supremely well). The horns suffer from the accustomed Russian blur and the trumpets’ stridency is exacerbated by the recording.

These are the "buts", and readers will know of them. For newcomers, who may not know it Svetlanov was competing at the time with such as Giulini, Previn and, especially, Maazel whose ideas of orchestral discipline, sonority and weight were very different from his own. Given these strictures the collector may decide to forego these somewhat erratic performances with their woolly horns, wandering intonation and personalised views of tempo relations. And that, as they say, would be a huge mistake.

Svetlanov’s cycle is one of the most galvanic, intense, troubled, driving, inconsistent and remarkable that you could wish to hear. Taken individually there are superiors in a number of the symphonies and even at his best there are always points of contention – a really very fast allegro here, a too speeded up accelerando there, paragraphal passage points that don’t quite work – but taken as a whole, as a considered body of work, then I have to say that Svetlanov is a magnificent guide. Passionate, quixotic and debatable though he may be this is an unmissable set for all its faults and I would happily forego the pleasures of silken sheen for the rough linen of his way with the symphonies.

The First gets a strong, driving performance. Lean lower strings, fine pizzicati in the first movement, somewhat flaring horns fixing the harmony. There’s a most attractively shaped slow movement – wonderful string gauze, effortlessly sprung rhythm, pirouetting strings: superb cellos. The scherzo has nice blustery outer sections and a central lissom waltz with vigorous lilt, the finale a suitably lugubrious start and then passionate drive, a solid old fugue, and more grim concentration. Not the neatest account ever but a powerfully convincing and totally absorbed reading.

No.2 gets another outstanding reading – fast, buoyant, captivating and uncut, which certainly wasn’t always the case in those days. The opening is terse and dynamic, fast and biting. Svetlanov gives us the ominous and saturnine as much as he does the drive and blister. He is careful not to relax too much through the development. The slow movement is amiable, perhaps, rather than marziale as marked and there’s a gentleness to the string entries that may impress those used to more blustery and imperial performances. Slashing strings drive the super-fast scherzo – powerful rhythm, full of sap, pipy folksy relish in the winds - the USSR winds were especially good at the rusticities here. The finale is vibrant and stirring with also a curve to the string melodies; they play the folk-song embedded here, The Crane, with especial relish. A wonderfully life-affirming reading; brash maybe but engulfing.

When we arrive at No.3 The Polish we find Svetlanov still in full flow. The opening funèbre is taken at a decent speed though the succeeding tempo adjustments are not always exactly seamless. The strings remain bold and vigorous, the trumpets’ tone is searching and insistent and if ensemble suffers at some of the tempi Svetlanov orders, then the benefits are those of adrenalin-inducing drama. Lend an ear in particular to the middle-voiced strings as they unfold their yearning cantilevered melody in the slow movement and also listen to the relatively restrained tempo for the finale. Here the sense of controlled power is palpable and the fugal passages sound splendid.

I liked his Fourth though I can imagine there would be objections to some of the solo playing and the corporate ensemble does come under great strain from time to time. I happen to find the brass here vibrant and exciting, but also that the strings aspire to, and often achieve, a degree of balletic grace. The histrionic is kept under control – for all his intensity and galvanizing attack Svetlanov was seldom a really histrionic conductor though he was a blazingly exciting one - and one finds tempi are not unduly forced. Note the trombone descant and the individual colour evoked by clarinet and bassoon. The slow movement in particular gains from this control with a very natural tempo and perfectly timed pizzicati, though the oboe solo is deadpan. Much better are the scherzo’s folkloric winds, the bellicose brass, and the gloriously rough and ready, hell-for-leather finale.

If there’s a letdown in the set then it’s the Fifth. It’s not quite up to the level of the others and tends to promote beef at the expense of lyricism. The opening movement begins with encouraging portentousness but there’s a rather unyielding directness about its development. The slow movement is marred by the tone of the principal horn whose solo, however well phrased, sounds bad. The scherzo I find curiously uninvolving and the finale’s gear changes, whilst exciting, sound just too forced to be really convincing. There’s a brusqueness here that some may approve and an undeniable excitement but too many details count against it.

Finally to the Pathétique which somewhat restores the balance. The blanched opening and perhaps rather cosy allegro are deceptive; the development is fast and exciting but Svetlanov doesn’t ratchet tension too much in the opening. The slow movement is relatively fast and he doesn’t indulge rubati, as some of his contemporaries were fond of doing here; some may miss that. The scherzo sports some aerial playing and a real lightness of articulation. And the finale balances the first movement; if it seems constrained Svetlanov is preparing for the blaring climax. Few could blaze with brass and percussion like Svetlanov and he doesn’t disappoint here, though some may feel the actual timing a little awry.

A glorious set then, all told. Uneven, certainly, and none perhaps first choices. The playing can be scrappy, the recording not of the finest. But the dynamism of the playing, the buoyancy of the tempos, the folkloric kick of the winds and the seductive sway of those cellos and violas are all vibrancy personified. The Fifth is a bit of a misfire and individual moments elsewhere won’t necessarily convince. If you go for smoother textures, more suave underlining don’t bother with Svetlanov; he’s the antithesis of what you like. But for excitement without hysteria, vibrancy without crudity, this could be your set – even though it was recorded, and how amazing this now seems, just about forty years ago.

Jonathan Woolf




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