I was all set to complain about needless reduplications of the
standard repertoire that don't offer anything new. But the young
Tugan Sokhiev, winner of the 2000 International Prokofiev Competition,
has a distinctive take on both these scores, even if he's committed
one of them to record prematurely.
The conductor is at his best in the Mussorgsky-Ravel picture gallery,
displaying a nice feel for orchestral color and texture. In
the first half of the score, his relaxed tempi favor certain
expressive choices. The opening Promenade, soft in attack
yet clean and full, suggests an easy stroll into the gallery.
Gnomus is deliberate and mysterious; The Old Castle
begins plainly, gradually expanding into a sinuous nostalgia.
The central section of Tuileries is delicately, tenderly
phrased, and the tapered ending is a nice touch. Bydlo
goes with a sense of grim purpose -- Sokhiev understands that
the low, filled-in textures produce a sufficiently lumbering
effect without dragging -- after which the next Promenade
seems unusually thoughtful.
After the perky Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks -- this and Limoges,
the other scherzando movement, are okay, nothing special
-- Sokhiev's stark, pictorial treatment of Samuel Goldberg
and Schmuyle stands out. The opening string gesture, weighty
and imposing, vividly evokes the overbearing businessman. The
trumpet response is accented the right way, for a change --
it's astonishing how many competent players get this detail
wrong; perhaps it's a bit too lithe and buoyant, but it's effective
when pitted against the string theme. In the coda, Sokhiev leans
on the descending, "beseeching" phrases so as to emphasize
the nagging augmented second, before the uncompromising final
cadence -- well done.
In Catacombs, the conductor carefully times and weights the
chords and pauses, much as a Lied singer does with words
and syllables, enhancing the drama; the closing woodwind phrases
of Cum mortuis in lingua mortua are clear and pliant.
After all the relative deliberation, Sokhiev's fleet, poised
Baba Yaga is a surprise. At the peak of the final rushing
upward scale, the first chord of Great Gate of Kiev arrives
attacca, "resolving" it; Sokhiev moves smartly
through the closing statements, eschewing heavy rhetoric, for
a satisfying conclusion.
The Tchaikovsky symphony certainly begins promisingly. The full-throated
horn fanfares immediately seize attention, and the change of
color and texture at 1:06, when clarinets and bassoons take
over, is a nice touch. Sokhiev launches the main theme with
assurance, with velvety string pulses gently nudging it forward;
in the graceful, lilting second group, the violin duet at 6:25
is clean and quiet, as are the woodwinds at 7:03; the exposition
closes thrillingly. But in the development, with its syncopations
and hemiolas displacing the basic pulse, a creeping cumulative
unease sets in. The tricky cadences at 9:40 and 9:46 are insecure,
after which, despite some further attempts to shape and color
the phrases, the performance becomes about just getting through.
The recapitulation is more settled, but one expected more --
the woodwind phrases in the coda, which could have been luminous,
are ordinary. It's a curious trajectory for this movement --
from outstanding to insecure to serviceable -- and it's in keeping
with what follows.
The slow movement starts out well enough, though the various woodwind
soli are self-consciously molded, but the under-articulated
Trio thickens after 4:41, where the woodwinds and strings seem
not quite together as the music builds. The Scherzo works, routinely.
In the finale, I liked Sokhiev's clipped phrase-endings in the
second subject, but every time Tchaikovsky leads us back to
the first theme, the running sixteenth notes accelerate and
Were this a mid-priced issue -- it's going for full price Stateside
-- I could recommend the Pictures performance. In a comprehensive
library, it'd make a nice foil for a more overtly virtuosic rendering
-- Reiner's, say, or Ormandy's (both RCA) -- and it's more interesting
than the similarly conceived readings of Karajan (DG) and Ozawa
(also RCA). The Tchaikovsky is simply uncompetitive.
Stephen Francis Vasta
see also Review
by David Barker