This is the fifth instalment of Neeme Järvi’s cycle of Tchaikovsky
symphonies, the first on SACD. Here Tchaikovsky’s ‘fate motif’
which opens his Fourth Symphony is sonorous and steely.
The following first theme (tr. 1 1:25), ‘In movimento di Valse’,
Järvi begins waltz-like but as it progresses, observing the added
accents, emphasises its angularity of line. A consistent virtue
of Järvi’s approach is his symphonic clarity and his clear exposition
of thematic development and structure. The down-side of this is
that some elements, like the interchange between woodwind and
strings from 3:54, appear more formal than exciting.
treatment of the second theme (5:14) and its aftermath is finely
contrasted. Meant to be escapist relief, its instrumental solos
also have piquancy and character while the cellos’ theme (5:39)
is wistfully comforting. The idyllic tune comes in the first
and second violins’ sunny duet (6:29), worked up into a finely
upstanding but still slightly stiff dance before a scary return
of the fate motif. In the development I like Järvi’s clearly
revealing the conflict of the simultaneous juxtaposition of
rising and falling motifs on woodwind and strings, especially
from 9:50. He’s also convincing in the gradual crescendo
of determined will from 10:39. Even so, the first theme climax
at 12:27 is just a fraction held back to ensure clarity of articulation
and this happens with some loss of spontaneity. By way of compensation
his treatment of the flutes and clarinets’ hymn-like thematic
transformation from 16:26 is memorable. The closing climax is
suitably searing if a touch formal.
I compared the 2002
live SACD recording by the Wiener Philharmoniker and Valery
Gergiev (Philips 475 6196). Here are the comparative timings:
Timings I II III
Järvi 18:27 9:44 5:37 9:05
Gergiev 18:56 9:34 5:33 8:28
is more theatrical. His first theme is more graphically a tottering
sort of waltz from the outset. His interchange between strings
and wind is more tense in the manner of passionate ballet. His
treatment of the second theme is more veiled and sophisticated,
the cellos’ theme more dreamy, arguably closer to Tchaikovsky’s
escapism. However I preferred Järvi’s approach here. Gergiev’s
lighter, truly dancing climax to this section is undeniably
more effective, his climax of the first theme more hair-raising
and his final climax a smidgen more poised.
The oboe solo which
begins the slow movement is marked ‘simple but graceful’ and
the former element is more evident in Järvi’s account, a free-flowing
recollection in clean tone. This makes the cellos’ repeat of
the theme, just marked ‘graceful’, warmer. Gergiev is more graceful
at the outset and his cellos are more dolefully emotive but
I prefer Järvi’s artlessness. Järvi’s central section (tr. 2
4:06) is more clearly faster, as marked, thus headier, indeed
finely burnished. It is the most uninhibitedly elated expression
of his account so far. The opening theme returns in thoughtful
fashion. Järvi reveals it in fine continuity without appreciable
shaping and is equally sensitive to its closing fragmentation
among the instruments. The effect of this is curiously nostalgic
and moving. Suddenly there seems to be space to contemplate.
Again I prefer this approach to Gergiev’s greater shaping and
melancholy. I also prefer the more airy BIS recording of the
Gothenburg Concert Hall to the brighter, drier Grosser Saal
in Vienna’s Musikverein for Philips.
Järvi presents the
scherzo’s strings’ pizzicato in feathery articulation
but plush tone, at once intriguingly insubstantial yet quivering
with life. Gergiev is more fastidious about dynamic contrasts
but the result seems more virtuoso display than the intangible
figures floating past which Tchaikovsky wished to convey. Järvi’s
gentler approach gets closer. In the central section Järvi’s
drunken peasant sings amiably on the woodwind, especially the
chirrupy flute and later piccolo before a jolly march-past by
the brass band. Gergiev’s central section is more assertive
and zany, striking enough but without Järvi’s humour, as in
the balletic late interchange of strings and wind.
In the finale triangle,
cymbals and, to particularly explosive effect in Järvi’s recording,
bass drum enter. Let the devil-may-care festivities begin. Here
Järvi largely throws off the shackles of grandeur and formality
and is more stimulatingly boisterous, scurrying strings egged
on by woodwind, full of pace and fizz. At the heart of it all
is the folksong ‘In the field there stood a birch tree’ first
heard immediately after the opening flourish. In the modulations
of its many repetitions Järvi conveys Tchaikovsky’s keen interest
in human activity and the variety of mood it evokes. This focus
is enough to render the return of the fate motif, however formidable,
of only momentary effect and the closing jubilation is splendidly
relished. Gergiev’s finale is faster, thereby a model of stunning
virtuoso display, but the colour and emotion Järvi gets from
the folksong even early on isn’t so apparent in Gergiev until
the development section. Here Järvi’s increased shading is also
Next from Järvi
on this SACD is the Serenade for Strings. His
introduction to the opening Sonatina is formal and stately,
yet he sensitively conveys the inherent emotion without being
too heart-on-sleeve. He also catches well the ambivalence of
the first theme of the Allegro moderato (tr. 5 1:57),
as conveyed in that very marking, stepping towards and then
away from ardour. There’s an underlying dark grain, partly a
product of the warm, glowing acoustic of the Gothenburg Concert
Hall spaciously captured in the surround sound. The upper strings
semi-quaver flurries contain angst. The second theme (3:32),
headed by pizzicato strings, is much lighter in mood
and frothier, but it’s then searchingly penetrated by recollections
of the opening of the first theme. I compared the 1990 recording
by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra/Philippe Entremont (Naxos 8.550404).
Here are the comparative timings:
Timings Sonatina Waltz Elegy Finale
Järvi 9:51 3:56 9:10
Entremont 9:32 3:53 9:10 7:51
Entremont is brighter, leaner and more athletic in the Sonatina.
The first theme sweeps forward more optimistically as an ardent
surge. The second theme is charming and delicate. The overall
effect is of flamboyant neatness and clarity but Tchaikovsky’s
own note at the beginning of the score states that the larger
the orchestra the better his wishes will be met. With such a
body, Järvi provides more emotive engagement while, and perhaps
because, avoiding stressing the virtuoso aspects.
To the second movement
Waltz Järvi brings a smiling lilt and relaxed manner which nevertheless
allows for purposeful momentum, especially in the central section.
He uses dynamic contrasts for subtle shading rather than bold
effects. Entremont’s smaller body of strings makes for a livelier,
lighter-hearted, jollier approach. Järvi is more refined and
the counterpoint in the violas when the first theme returns
(tr. 6 2:00), not easy to articulate clearly, is defter.
Järvi achieves a
visionary quality, a sense of opening up a vista, in the rising
scale phrases of the first pages of the third movement Elegy.
Its central big theme is smoulderingly emotive yet also tender
and offset by delicate counterpoint. It is given more potency
by being shared by first violins, cellos and sometimes violas.
The return of the opening is more rapt, like a reverent pilgrimage,
after which Järvi suggests a more despairing phase before a
beautifully becalmed final expanded rising scale motif. Entremont’s
account has a smooth opening and clean line to the big theme
but lacks, even in its glistening climax, Järvi’s tonal and
therefore emotive density. Later Entremont shows a restless
and forlorn quality but not Järvi’s desolation.
Järvi makes a sheeny
opening to the finale based on a Russian folk theme before its
friskier Allegro guise takes over the proceedings (tr.
8 1:21). He brings to the second theme (1:52) a pleasingly contrasted
breadth and then clearly demonstrates the joining of the two
themes before the first movement introduction returns and turns
out to be a slower variant of the finale’s first theme. Entremont’s
more expansive opening of the finale, his introduction taking
1:45 against Järvi’s 1:19, is more innocent. His Allegro
has plenty of spirit, if not Järvi’s humour, but his second
theme lacks Järvi’s characterful shape and Järvi builds the
development section (from 2:56) with a greater sense of purpose.
To end Järvi’s SACD
the Elegy in memory of I.V. Samarin, originally
composed as a ‘Grateful Greeting’ for the actor’s fifty years
on stage. This explains why it wears its sadness expansively
with a fondness for theatrical gestures and poses, colourfully
indulged by Järvi. All the same its recurring main theme is
wistful and haunting.
In sum, well played,
glowingly recorded and generous in playing time. This is an
attractive SACD, albeit Gergiev is more electric in the climaxes
of the symphony’s first movement.