Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op 36 [42:55]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op 64 [47:25]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 74, “Pathétique” [46:07]
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. live 3-15 July 2006, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy
EMI CLASSICS 6 31811 2 [71:24 + 65:03]

Antonio Pappano’s set of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies was released on EMI just three years ago (when it was made a MusicWeb Recording of the Month), but already, after such a short time, it is being enshrined in a new series of mostly decades-old performances called, “EMI Masters: Great Classical Recordings”. According to the back of the CD case, “EMI Masters celebrates the full glory of the greatest performances from the world’s greatest catalogue of recorded music …You will be left in no doubt that you are in the presence of legendary musicians and ageless interpretations.”

This triggered a heightened cynicism alert level in my mind, and I started listening with serious trepidation. “Bah,” I thought, “three years on and they’re already calling this ‘ageless’. What a gimmick.” But I have to report that my skepticism was mostly swept away. The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in particular are great performances. Few will call them the best ever made, but few will be disappointed either. Antonio Pappano’s Tchaikovsky really is excellent.

A good thing, too, because we live in great times for Tchaikovsky lovers. Daniele Gatti’s thrilling symphony albums with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were recorded just a few years ago. Mariss Jansons’ Chandos cycle of the complete symphonies is available at bargain prices. I recently heard a radio broadcast of Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic playing No. 6 which suggested to me that, should they ever record the cycle for Naxos, it would immediately become a prime choice. Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra turned in a sumptuously recorded Sixth not too long ago, on an Ondine SACD. And EMI itself offers a two-disc set of Herbert von Karajan’s 1971 recordings of the last three symphonies, plus Riccardo Muti’s acclaimed cycle.

This is the outstanding field in which Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia can stand tall. The Fourth launches with a thrilling fanfare by the horns, and the first movement gets superb treatment with an unwavering tempo and unabashedly romantic violin playing. The cellos at around 6:00 have me thinking this is chamber music – an illustration of how well Pappano handles all of Tchaikovsky’s conflicting moods with a natural ease. The storms are violent and the calm interludes are uncommonly sensitive. The rest of the symphony benefits from the same qualities: a soft slow movement gently paced, dreamlike scherzo, and “let-it-rip” finale in which the orchestra excitedly races to the finish.

The Fifth Symphony – though unfortunately split across two CDs – gets nearly as good a performance as it has ever received. I say “nearly” because the opening introduction is just a little bit too slow for me, so that the linking phrases of the motto theme drift apart in the stillness. No complaints from there: the main movement takes off with momentum and grand passion, the Santa Cecilia orchestra wears its heart on its sleeve, and the recording allows brass contributions to really be felt at climaxes. The slow movement has beautiful sensitivity - although my favorite horn solo is still on the Royal Philharmonic/Gatti disc - the waltz is graceful, and the finale absolutely catches fire! That may be surprising, as it’s very slow (12:48 to Jansons’ 11:22 or Mravinsky’s 11:11), but in the full-bodied Santa Cecilia sound and dramatic shaping of events we have yet another lesson not to take timings too seriously.

The only comparative disappointment is No. 6, which struck me as a bit too “normal.” It’s a pedestrian account, good but not exceptional, and hardly gripping: the first time I listened, I barely noticed the middle two movements. Eschenbach’s recent SACD with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a brilliant example of how an emotionally “cool” performance of the Pathétique can reap big musical dividends, but Pappano’s coolness is not as accomplished. One gets the feeling that he was trying to emote but just cannot do it as well as Mravinsky and Gatti can.

The sound is full and well-suited to Tchaikovsky’s big, rich orchestral sonorities. The recordings are especially impressive for having been made live; we really get little indication that there is an audience. Evidently in an Italian July not many concertgoers develop a cough. On the other hand, I wish Pappano himself had been a little less audible; unless my ears are deceiving me, we can hear not just his breathing but sometimes his movements about the conductor’s stand. His breathing is consistently audible even when I forsake my headphones and use my laptop’s speakers. On the other hand, the liner notes by Julian Haylock are consistently intelligent and make for great reading, unlike the booklet notes provided with most reissues these days.

So I began listening to this set a skeptic and ended up, in the cases of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, a convert. In this respect my experience is similar to Dominy Clements’ when he made this a Recording of the Month in 2007. EMI’s swift repackaging of these performances as “Great Classical Recordings” is primarily a publicity stunt but it also has the benefit of being accurate. I would rather have Pappano’s lively set, with the fully engaged playing of the Santa Cecilia crew, than the old Muti recordings, which are looking stodgier by the year. But if you really want to hear the very best digital recordings of these works, or if you are wondering how I can get away with calling Muti “stodgy”, investigate Daniele Gatti’s Fourth, Mariss Jansons’ Fifth, and Vasily Petrenko’s Sixth - if you can find a bootleg; otherwise try Vladimir Jurowski with the LPO, an album I chose as a 2009 Recording of the Year. Even so, any Tchaikovsky lover should be very happy indeed to have Pappano’s excellent accounts, two of which really do live up to their lofty billing.

Brian Reinhart

They are labelled as “great recordings” after just three years, but not without reason.