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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877) [43:38]
Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet (1869 rev. 1870, 1880) [20:10]
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [49:11]
Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32 (1876) [23:12]
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique (1893) [47:49]
1812 Overture (Festival Overture The Year 1812’), Op. 49 (1880) [15:26]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, USA (Opp. 36, 26 September 1990); (Romeo and Juliet, 29-30 April 1988); (Op. 64 and Francesca da Rimini, 19-21 January 1991); (Opp. 74, 3, 6, 7, 11 November 1989) and The Old Met, Philadelphia, USA (1812 Overture, February 1981). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5094352 [3 CDs: 63:58 + 72:37 + 63:23]
Experience Classicsonline

I think Tchaikovsky was always ready for immortality ... and with his final three symphonies he secured his place in the pantheon of Great Composers.” Valery Gergiev.
The EMI Classics label has raided their extensive back catalogue for this three disc compilation.
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op. 36
The Fourth Symphony was written at a particularly crucial point in Tchaikovsky’s life. 1877 was not only the year of his disastrous marriage but also the year in which he began his fifteen-year correspondence with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. The F minor Symphony has always been a popular work with its muscular and melodic writing. Infused throughout the score is the sense of ‘fate’ which Tchaikovsky believed controlled his destiny as he described in a letter to Madame von Meck, “the fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from achieving its goal … which hangs above your head like the sword of Damocles.”
In the opening movement Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima the performance from the Philadelphia Orchestra under Muti is as exciting as one is likely to hear. Muti blends passion and power to perfection and the conclusion was awe-inspiring. The moving and robust Andantino in modo di canzona was so convincing that I was left with a compelling sense of Tchaikovsky’s despair and fatigue. In the pizzicato section of the Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato (Allegro) the Philadelphia strings are on their finest form and the woodwind deserve praise for their assured contribution at 1:44-3:04. There’s tremendous energy and drama in the Finale. Allegro con fuoco. It is hard to imagine better playing and I found myself on the edge of my seat. The sound quality throughout is to demonstration standard.
This performance of the Fourth Symphony is in the premier league of the alternative recordings and I believe it is probably the best of all the versions. Other favourite accounts from my collection are those from Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on Chandos CHAN 8361 (c/w Romeo and Juliet Overture); Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw on Music & Arts mono CD809 (c/w Symphonies 5 and 6); Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1212 (c/w Marche Slave and 1812 Overture); Mravinsky with the Leningrad PO on DG 419 745-2GH2 (c/w Symphonies 5 and 6); Karajan with the VPO on Decca Penguin 460 655-2 (c/w Romeo and Juliet Overture) and Gergiev and the VPO from Vienna in 2002 on Philips 475 6315 0 PX3 (c/w Symphonies 5 and 6).
Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet
Composed in 1869, revised in 1870 and again in 1880 the Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet is Tchaikovsky’s musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and one of the most enduring works in popularity. The tone poem contains musical themes that principally represent: Friar Laurence, the Montague and the Capulets feud, and the love music of Romeo and Juliet.
Mysterious, powerful, sensuous and passionate, Muti and his Philadelphia players take the listeners through a broad spectrum of colour and emotions. The recording is decent enough but a touch close for my taste.
I remain a great admirer of the account of the Romeo and Juliet Overture from Pletnev and the Russian NO on DG 471 742-2 (c/w Pathétique) and also the performance from Karajan with the VPO on Decca ‘Penguin series’ 460 655-2 (c/w Fourth Symphony).
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op. 64
Composed in 1888 the Fifth Symphony is generally considered to be the most attractive of Tchaikovsky’s major works. When he first began writing the symphony he was suffering from a deep depression. However, he moved to the countryside and his state of mind became much more relaxed, enjoying the peace and quiet, gaining a new-found pleasure from his garden. This E minor Symphony reflects all the violent and conflicting emotions that he was experiencing at the time of its composition.
Muti and the Philadelphians provide a grey and sombre opening Andante - Allegro con anima that gives way to increased weight and power. One, however, wonders if Muti is keeping something in reserve. The principal elements of melancholy and beauty are blended to considerable effect in the Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, although the speeds feel rather too measured. Here Muti builds up great tension in a moving interpretation. In the Valse - Allegro moderato the infectious playing is light with a convincing lilt. With highly authoritative playing the Philadelphia convey a triumphant mood in the Finale: Andante maestoso - Allegro vivace movement. I found the recording clear, bright and fairly close.
From my collection I highly rate the accounts of the Fifth Symphony from Jansons and the Oslo PO on Chandos CHAN 8351; Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1213 (c/w Capriccio Italien); Mravinsky with the Leningrad PO on DG 419 745-2GH2 (c/w Symphonies 4 and 6); Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony SBK 46538 (c/w Serenade for Strings) and Gergiev and the VPO from Salzburg in 1998 on Philips 475 6315 0 PX3 (c/w Symphonies 4 and 6).
Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32
Tchaikovsky composed Francesca da Rimini in less than three weeks during his visit to Bayreuth in 1876. The premiere performance was given in Moscow in 1877 and proved so popular that the work was repeated twice a couple of months later. This is programme music of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini with the first section depicting the gateway to the Inferno and the agonies of the condemned. The middle section represents the tragic love of Paolo and Francesca, and the third part returns to the Inferno followed by a concluding section.
In Francesca da Rimini Muti and the Philadelphians revel in the fierce and stormy passages but provide contrast in music of contemplation with an air of mystery. The clarinet playing from Anthony Gigliotti especially at 8:28-9:25 is impeccable.
My preferred version of Francesca da Rimini is from the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Igor Markevitch on Philips Classics Duo 446 148-2 (c/w Symphonies 1-3).
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, universally known as the Pathétique, is among the most deeply moving and profound of all works. An enduring masterwork which Tchaikovsky considered to be his greatest composition. Once again the struggle against ‘fate’ is central to this symphony which was to be the last Tchaikovsky wrote. The première took place in October 1893 at St. Petersburg and just eight days later the composer was dead. Few farewells in music are more poignant.
Muti and the Philadelphia in the opening movement Adagio - Allegro non troppo impart a sinister air of shadowy foreboding with vigour and passion. The main theme is performed with just the right level of strength and poignancy. The Allegro con grazia is smooth and good humoured and I was impressed with the assured control and potency that Muti conveys in the Allegro molto vivace. Tchaikovsky’s mood of intense desperation and torment is impressively communicated in the Finale: Adagio lamentoso - Andante as they bring the score to a harrowing conclusion. A special mention goes to the woodwind section for their splendid playing throughout. Decent sound quality, reasonably clear and well balanced
I have several favourite versions of the Pathétique Symphony in my collection that I find deeply satisfying. The account from Pletnev and the Russian NO on DG 471 742-2 (c/w Romeo and Juliet Overture); Jansons with the Oslo PO on Chandos CHAN 8446; Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis RRC 1214 (c/w The Storm Overture); Mravinsky with the Leningrad PO on DG 419 745-2GH2 (c/w Symphonies 4 and 5) and Gergiev and the VPO from Vienna in 2004 on Philips 475 6315 0 PX3 (c/w Symphonies 5 and 6). I still admire and regularly play my first recording of the work, which is on a vinyl LP, conducted by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Camden Classics CCV 5024.
1812 Overture, Op. 49
The Festival Overture The Year 1812 was composed in 1880 as a commission for the Moscow Exhibition of 1882; principally for the consecration of the Temple of Christ the Redeemer constructed to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon. The highly popular 1812 Overture is noted for its use of Russian themes, cannon shots and church bells in the coda.
Muti and the Philadelphians provide a vigorous and characterful performance and is my premier recommendation of the score. I found the recording most acceptable although two friends thought the forte passages a touch fierce. This interpretation is also on the outstanding Muti/Tchaikovsky set from Brilliant Classics 99792 (see below).
Those looking for a complete surveys of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies and the Manfred Symphony may wish to turn to Muti’s superb earlier set with the Philharmonia from London in 1975-81. The set is now available at super-budget price on Brilliant Classics 99792. Also included are Muti’s recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra during 1981-91 of the Francesca da Rimini, 1812 Overture, Swan Lake Suite and Serenade for Strings and a version of the Romeo and Juliet Overture from the Philharmonia in 1977 in London.
Another splendid alternative is from Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. The set was recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Oslo in 1984-86 on Chandos CHAN 86728 and reissued in 2006 on Chandos CHAN 10392 (c/w Capriccio Italien).
Returning to the present set: these are splendid performances from Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI Classics. However, the competition in these scores is extremely fierce and Muti’s earlier set on Brilliant Classics is generously filled and makes a tempting first choice.
Michael Cookson


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