Tchaikovsky and Bernstein - a match made in heaven? Not quite.
Bernstein was a larger
than life character. His podium extravagances were an eloquent
metaphor for his euphoric and headstrong approach to the music.
He is the antithesis of the self-effacing conductor of the Boult
pattern - poles apart. His Sibelius and Nielsen is potent and
the Nielsen in particular is very special indeed. His way with
Schuman, Harris, Diamond and Randall Thompson always liberates
both poetic sentiment and gusts of energy. This surely is just
the man for Tchaikovsky's potently volatile emotionalism?
In the First Symphony
and in its two successors Tchaikovsky comes closest to the Nationalist
idiom of the Kouchka (Borodin, Rimsky and the rest). He rose
to his full personal stature in the last three symphonies and
in Manfred and Francesca da Rimini though some
will take issue with me over placing Manfred in this
of the first three are trim and supple. They ripple with excitement.
His First Symphony is light as Mendelssohnian featherdown somewhere
between the faerie realms of A Misdsummer Night's Dream and
the adolescent wonders of The Nutcracker. Listen to the
delectable opening - Winter Daydreams indeed. The second
movement of the Second Symphony makes innocent play of the conspiratorial
nocturnal march and play is not far away from the Schumann-inflected
scherzo third movement. Things are only spoilt, to a degree,
by the pompous opening of the last movement which is rather
the composer's 'fault' than Bernstein's. Although I have seen
some condemnation of Bernstein's recording of the Third Symphony
I found its playful excesses not at all off-putting.
The Fourth Symphony
is pulled about mercilessly by Bernstein and is in no way recommendable.
I have few problems with liberty-taking if the end result works
as it usually does with Golovanov and Stokowski but this simply
miscarries. Success comes more easily in the Pathétique
which is a work tailor-made for Bernstein. With nice stereo
separation and a closer balance than that for the early symphonies
this engages and fluently holds the listener's attention. If
there is a downside it is a tendency by the engineers to hold
back on the climaxes. On the other hand the adagio is at a steady
close-up mezza voce. The mind knows the music is quiet
or loud but the original CBS team clearly felt that the levels
could not be left to their natural inclinations. The allegro
molto vivace bristles with life and soloistic instrumental
bi-play rising to a pealing climax this time rendered naturally
and loud. Allowance being made for a caustic tone to the strings
this works pretty well.
The Fifth also goes
with a swing with Bernstein's predilection for extremes of speed
fully indulged including a treacly slow tempo for the great
French horn solo in the slow movement. If that was a miscalculation
the finale sounds very well indeed. I especially liked the emphasis
laid on the growling brass at the start. It is not quite as
extreme as Mravinsky's famous 1961 recording with the Leningrad
Phil on DG but it is in the same ball park. It does not however
displace my preferred version: Monteux and the LSO in Vienna
live in 1960 on Vanguard - revelatory in every detail (see review).
The withering competition offered by Vanguard-Monteux is irresistible.
It’s a set that belongs in the Hall of Fame alongside a number
of Second Symphonies: Gerhardt’s Hanson, Bernstein’s Randall
Thompson and Beecham’s Sibelius.
including the spavine warhorses (1812 and Marche Slave)
are more consistently on song than the symphonies. The tone
poems Romeo, Francesca and Hamlet are extremely
satisfying without displacing Monteux in Romeo (Vanguard)
and Stokowski (Everest and Dell'Arte) in the other two.
Strange that the Manfred
Symphony never appealed to him or at least not enough to
tempt him into the studio. Its illustrative nature, theatricality
and grand manner would surely have been temperamentally perfect
for the showman steeped in the adrenalin of the moment.
The analogue recordings
date from between 1957 and 1975. Surface and hiss has been largely
tamed although it is certainly apparent at the start of the
Overall then, not a
top-flight recommendation for this box. My preference would
go to the BMG set from Temirkanov and the RPO. I have not heard
the expensive Jansons/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra Chandos set
nor the Bournemouth Litton on Virgin but these have been rated
highly by others. The Bernstein is extremely attractively priced
so it would make a nice third or fourth set to remind you of
the unstable and idiosyncratic chemistry of Tchaikovsky and
1960s Bernstein - a 'Columbia Legend' - exactly as the box proclaims.