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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1878) [43:08]1
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880) [30:32] 2
Elegy in memory of I.V. Samarin (1884) [5:50] 3
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Jarvi
rec. Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden, 1May 2003, 3August 2004, 2March 2005. DDD
BIS BISSACD1458 [80:23]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

However, Järvi’s 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           IV          Total
Järvi                18:27        9:44        5:37        9:05        43:08
Gergiev           18:56        9:34        5:33        8:28        42:26

Gergiev’s approach 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 appreciable.

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      Total
Järvi                9:51             3:56        9:10       7:13        30:32
Entremont       9:32             3:53        9:10       7:51        30:26

Slightly faster, 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.

Michael Greenhalgh




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