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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Winter Daydreams, Op. 13 [44:25]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Little Russian, Op. 17 [32:18]
Symphony No. 3 in D, Polish, Op. 29 [47:52]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 [44:33]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 [47:35]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique, Op. 74 [46:18]
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 [24:36]
Marche slave, Op. 31 [22:49]
1812, Op. 49 [15:29]
Romeo and Juliet - fantasy overture [19:21]
Hamlet op. 67 [19:06]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Philharmonic Hall, NY, 20 Oct 1970 (1); 24 Oct 1967 (2); 10 Feb 1970 (3); 31 Oct 1960 (Francesca); 21 Jan 1963 (Marche); 2 Oct 1962 (1812); 19 Oct 1970 (Hamlet); Manhattan Center, NY, 28 Apr 1975 (4); 16 May 1960 (5); 11 Feb 1964 (6); Saint-George Hotel of Brooklyn, 13 Jan 1957 (Romeo and Juliet). ADD
SONY CLASSICS COLUMBIA LEGENDS SERIES SM5K 87987 [6 CDs: 67.29 + 60.40 + 59.59 + 65.08 + 64.47 + 69.53]


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 company. 

Bernstein's readings 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.

The ‘make-weights’ 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 Fifth Symphony.

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. 

Rob Barnett 


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