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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, op.13 “Winter Dreams” (1866) [45:10]
Francesca da Rimini — Symphonic Fantasy, op.32 (1876) [25:29]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, op.17 “Little Russian” (1872) [34:49]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, op.29 “Polish” (1875) [46:29] (start)
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in D major, op.29 “Polish” (1875) [46:29] (end)
Romeo and Juliet — Fantasy Overture (1869/1880) [22:41]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op.36 (1877) [44:46]
CD 4
Manfred Symphony in B minor, op.58 (1885) [60:11]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op.74 “Pathétique” (1893) [45:18] (start)
CD 5
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op.74 “Pathétique” (1893) [45:18] (end)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op.64 (1888) [52:01]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, October 1976; Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 1977 (Francesca da Rimini and Romeo and Juliet). ADD
EMI CLASSICS 5194932 [5 CDs: 70:47 + 72:32 + 76:43 + 79:09 + 78:34] 


Experience Classicsonline

I bought Rostropovich’s Tchaikovsky cycle when it first appeared on LPs - remember them? - and was rather disappointed.  Having become used over the years to the sheer – and often quite raw - excitement brought to these scores by other Russian conductors like Mravinsky and Svetlanov, I was struck most, I recall, by a sense of sheer dullness.  Adding, I considered, nothing much to the cycles I already owned, the whole project seemed to me rather pointless. 


Expectations at the time were probably too high.  After all, even the greatest artistic insight and technical proficiency need not necessarily mean that a solo instrumentalist will successfully make the transition to inspiring and leading a full orchestra.  And while it is true that within three years of his expulsion from the Soviet Union he was leading the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C., one might legitimately speculate whether Rostropovich’s elevation at the height of the Cold War owed as much to his celebrity status as a heroic political dissident as to his real ability on the podium.   


Maybe, though, a further thirty years of listening to a wealth of other Tchaikovsky interpretations has made me a little more kindly disposed towards these recordings.  My preference admittedly remains for the brassy raucousness of Soviet orchestras - what, I wonder, has happened to the magnificently-named USSR Radio and TV Large Symphony Orchestra?  But I now concede immediately that the London Philharmonic of the mid-1970s - still benefiting, as they were, from the welcome stability provided by Bernard Haitink’s appointment as principal conductor in 1967 - was in excellent shape.  Throughout these discs, all sections of the orchestra can be heard producing some ravishingly beautiful sounds.  Moreover, the superb balance conjured up by Rostropovich and the EMI engineers allows us to hear virtually every orchestral texture – many of them largely obscured in other recordings – with admirable clarity.


Continuing on a positive note for the time being, these interpretations are consistently marked by another welcome characteristic not always found in Tchaikovsky recordings – careful control of dynamics.  The wide range employed here gives far more variety of colour to these interpretations, even though it sometimes made for rather irritating home listening - it proved difficult to find a level where I wasn’t turning up the volume for the quietest passages and then having to turn it down again when things got a little too noisy.


It is also worth noting that Rostropovich can be admirably flexible in his approach.  Listening to these recordings, I lost count of the number of times I was forced to backtrack and modify my own jottings as I went along.  In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, I first of all noted that the “love theme” was presented in a somewhat cool and detached fashion, but was later forced to qualify that judgement with the word initially after it had later returned in full, pulsating Romantic glory.


There are, though, negative points too.  Just a few months ago my colleague Mark Sebastian Jordan gave this cycle a generally warm welcome (see review).  He, too, was impressed both by the orchestra’s full, rich sonority as well as by a certain sense that we could hear a tyro conductor examining these scores afresh with the orchestra in an organic creative process.  I would certainly agree with the first claim and can see how he could arrive at the second.  But in using the adjective broad no less than nine times – plus one instance of broadness – Mark’s review also pinpointed a consistent musical characteristic that is unlikely to appeal to all listeners. 


Many will, I think, see Rostropovich’s interpretations as just a little too careful and risk-averse.  There were certainly times when I yearned for just a little less of the intense drama and a little more sheer excitement.  I have no idea whether Rostropovich the cellist ever played under the baton of Nikolai Golovanov – their dates make it a possibility – but, if so, he certainly never absorbed any of the wild abandon that characterised that particular Soviet conductor and others of his ilk.  It goes without saying that that are some passages of great excitement here – but they do tend to sound rather contrived and artificial as they emerge out of nowhere and often disappear just as quickly.


Looking at each of the works here in turn, my notes on the Symphony no.1 confirm many of the general points.   After an opening movement that feels rather cautious and restrained, the adagio lacks, to my ear at least, the specified element of cantabile.  The scherzo makes a marked improvement, with alert, incisive playing and the appropriate giocoso swing, and the finale is impressive too, although the lugubre element is plastered on rather too thickly for me.


The first disc concludes with Francesca da Rimini, a work that allows the London Philharmonic to show its virtuosity.  Unfortunately Rostropovich fails to integrate its contrasting sections as effectively as, say, Stokowski in his classic 1958 recording with the “Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York” (the New York Philharmonic in mufti), as well as failing to conjure up anything like the stupendous emotional kick that the older conductor delivers in spades.


The Symphony no.2 is a fairly routine performance, I’m afraid.  There is one of those instances of artificial whipping up of excitement to which I referred earlier at about 6:59 in the opening movement and, once again, it is the scherzo that goes best of all. 


Symphony no.3, filling the rest of disc 2, is somewhat better, though the dramatic slowing down at about 11:50 in the opening movement seems to be done merely for effect and the way that the third movement proceeds in fits and starts sounds like an attempt to make it appear to be of greater musical significance than is really warranted.


The well-filled third disc opens with a convincing account of Romeo and Juliet before moving on to the Symphony no.4.  Rostropovich imposes a dramatic accelerando towards the end of its opening movement but, coming after a generally dull lengthy exposition it failed to sound anything other than a contrived effect.  While the central movements again show some improvement, the fuoco element of the finale’s allegro con fuoco emerges as less a wild forest blaze than a dimly glowing single-bar electric fire.


Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is, as I have noted before, something of a calling card these days for aspiring young conductors.  In the 1970s, however, it was heard – and recorded – rather less often.  Once again, Rostropovich scores well on the elements of declamation and drama, especially in the opening movement, but the plodding rhythms of the finale’s bacchanale suggest anything but the wanton abandon that would seem much more appropriate. 


In a similar fashion, the allegro con anima that we ought to expect in the opening movement of the Symphony no.5 actually lacks much anima at all, at least to begin with, and the last movement’s allegro vivace sounds, to my own ears, pretty un-vivace.  The middle movements are more successful.  The latter point is also true for the Symphony no.6, though once again the outer movements are rather less satisfying with a somewhat dull opening movement and a finale where the strings are inappropriate lush in music that should sound utterly bleak and despairing.


EMI have, in their wisdom, packaged this set so as to offer all six numbered symphonies, plus Manfred, Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini, on just five CDs.  Unfortunately, the inevitable result is that two of the symphonies – nos. 3 and 6 – have to be split over separate discs.  Less explicable – but somewhat annoying – is the fact that breaks between individual movements are frequently very brief indeed.


All in all, it is hard to see this set as a first choice in this highly competitive repertoire.  Indeed, it seems, to me at least, to be one of those unfortunate cases where the overall achievement proves to be so inconsistent – and lacking in any really discernable artistic direction – that, sadly, it eventually emerges as significantly less than the sum of its individual component parts.      


Rob Maynard


see also Review by Mark Sebastian Jordan



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