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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36 (1877) [42:57]
Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64 (1888) [47:28]
Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.74 Pathétique (1893) [46:09]
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome)/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 3-15 July 2006
EMI CLASSICS 3 53258 2 [71:27 + 65:05]


I can imagine collectors being divided about these new recordings of old favourites. Many will be entrenched, standing guardian over the legendary Mravinsky 1960s Leningrad Philharmonic versions, Markevitch and the LSO on Philips, Abbado’s 1980s Chicago cycle on Sony or possibly even Karajan’s 1970s set. All of these and more have their place and time, and now that Tchaikovsky’s cause is safely ‘in the bag’ with Thomas Adès’ statement that it’s "completely disastrous and absurd" to raise eyebrows at those who take Tchaikovsky seriously as a composer, we can all come out of the closet and breathe a collective sigh of relief.

For the remaining CD buffs still nervous about muso-intellectual street cred, there will be those wondering if it is worth donning the plain brown raincoat and dark glasses, and muttering, "the new Pappano, please" over the counter to our trusted but critically imperious record shop owner.

For a start, these live recordings have been made in front of a very well-behaved audience. The only occasional vocalisations seem to be from Pappano himself, as he urges the orchestra with some sotto voce singing and audible inhalations through the teeth. I do love the freshness of live performances, and much of the excitement and involvement of these concerts flows uninterrupted onto these discs. The Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia is one of Italy’s foremost symphony orchestras, and lives up to its reputation with stunningly powerful brass, excellent woodwinds both in solos and in chorus, and strings capable of dramatic dynamic contrast, accurate articulation and expressive phrasing. The recordings don’t seem to have been cleaned up to beyond the point of ‘liveness’, there still being a slight sense of danger with one or two entries, and an unfortunate but momentary lower string anticipation at 3:57 in the finale of No.6.

The 4th Symphony is truly excellent. The opening brass peal out of your speakers with spectacular assertiveness, and, thus hooked, you can put down your newspaper or novel and allow the musicians to create pictures in your mind far more vivid than the printed word. The turbulent first movement suits Pappano’s no-nonsense approach perfectly, and the orchestra responds to being allowed to let rip, both in the big tuttis, but also with all of those conversational solos and syncopated accompaniments which give the whole piece the feeling of ceaseless movement: a white-knuckle gondola ride. Compliments again to the winds in the canzona aspect of the second Andantino movement, and listen to how much detail there is in those string notes – not a one without direction or inner shape: one can hear exactly where and why such music would have had its impact on Shostakovich. The Pizzicato ostinato has the energy of a game of squash with big balls, and the subsequent passages are filled with the characteristic charm of those ballets for which Tchaikovsky is justly famous.

After the mightily rousing Finale of the 4th Symphony, it might be argued that Pappano’s opening of the Symphony No.5 is just a little betwixt and between, but if you hear the opening Andante as the dark introduction or curtain-raiser to a major dramatic event, then there can be few problems. Other critics have posed some nebulous reasons for finding Pappano’s reading of this symphony to be not-quite-on-a-par-with some others, and I quite agree that, there being more than one way to skin a cat, some cat’s owners might prefer not to be skinned in quite this way. Having become used to Pappano’s approach in the 4th Symphony I found few problems with the 5th however, his driving forward of the music appeals to my modern concert-goer’s desire to be out of the hall before the bars shut, and there is enough deep digging in the strings to satisfy the passionate, enough beauty in the solo lines to awaken the tear-ducts. I have lived for many years with the RCA recordings of these works by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Yuri Temirkanov which, while having many fine qualities and some strange ones in the Abbey Road recordings, miss the ‘live’ energy, impact and character of playing I find myself enjoying so much in these new performances.

Yes, it is a slight shame that the 5th is spread over two discs, but it’s surely no greater inconvenience to swap a CD than to turn over an LP or a cassette. You do get a sense of continuation through to the Valse movement, which dances in quasi-surreal, intimate candle-lit splendour, and the march of the Finale may be more Andante than maestoso, but has plenty of bite and vigour – inhabiting the idiom and wrestling with Tchaikovsky’s demons with a sense of heroic resistance.

The Welsh Joint Education Committee ‘A’ level exams had Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 as the set work for analysis in the early 1980s, so I share an intimate knowledge of the work with a number of my contemporaries based on pencil marks in the score which were supposed to have been erased before the exam: but oh how difficult it is to rub those markings to make them completely illegible. Confucius he say something like ‘faded ink is better than the best memory’, and who were we spotty A-level students to go against the wise words of Confucius-he-say. As a result, I can still recite chapter and verse on themes, development, modulations and recapitulations, but the abiding memory is learning more about how incredibly powerful the generally despised ‘romantic’ idiom could really be: the mechanics of musical ecstasy. I also learned about how not to clean your vinyl LPs. Our teacher, now an MBE, would wipe them on his woolly sweater before dumping them on the turntable – another of those life-changing things to have witnessed. In any case, after having heard the work hundreds of times on a myriad of different recordings, I think I can put my finger on why critics have an ‘almost-but-not-quite’ feeling about this work and the 5th Symphony on this set.

Critics have already made the point that Antonio Pappano’s credentials lean strongly towards the operatic. I do indeed have the sense that his phrasing in many places has a vocal breadth rather than a symphonic one. Take that ‘big tune’ at 14:40 into the first movement of the 6th Symphony. It has a forward momentum and a rubato line which would suit a dramatic tenor or soprano right down to the stockings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but doesn’t fit the often more expansive readings of some other big name baton wavers. Pappano has a more legato approach, and there is some sliding around in the strings on occasion. I actually quite like his no messing around, non-oleaginous, relatively unsentimental approach, but it does have more of the smiling Mediterranean than the grim Gulag about it. Tchaikovsky loved Italy, leaving a Souvenir de Florence as an advertiser’s gift for the place, so I can see no reason for allowing this aspect of these works to blossom. The punchy Allegro molto vivace has plenty of witty twists and turns of the wind parts – the delight is of course the contrast between this ‘scherzo’ character piece and the following Finale, and the listener has plenty of uplifting merriment from which to descend into the lamentoso of the end.

Again, Pappano doesn’t revel in orchestral sonorities to the detriment of the music’s message, which, becoming a song-like lament, is as moving as the final aria in Dido and Aeneas. The rising string figures are like storm clouds in time-lapse film, the rasping brass drill holes in your teeth, and the despair of ultimate loss in the closing bars is deep and poetic. These discs are a real ‘concert in your pocket’ and, having had them in mine for some weeks now, I can say that they are recordings which will grow on you, rewarding solitary listening sessions with genuinely satisfying and often deeply moving moments.

After such a performance of the 6th I can imagine Don Camillo and Peppone leaving the concert hall, heads bowed in pensive reflection. "That was something quite wonderful, eh, Peppone?" says the stocky priest, still wiping the tears from his eyes as they approach the nearest bar. "Yes, I quite agree comrade, but - not quite as good as our Verdi." The two gentlemen shake their heads in patriotic accord, but you can sense that their convictions might have been shaken – and more than just a little…

Dominy Clements


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