Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphonies 1-6 and other orchestral works
Full track listing at end of review
Göteborgs Symfoniker/Neeme Järvi
rec. Göteborg, Sweden, 2002-2005. DDD
6 discs for the price of 2
BIS-CD-1897/98 [6 CDs: 452:43]

Just about the only trick Chandos missed during their initial and very fruitful association with Neeme Järvi was to record a cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies. On reflection that was not so surprising given that they already had one highly acclaimed cycle in the can from Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. What is surprising, in the light of Järvi’s productivity and penchant for collections of symphonic works, is that it has taken nearly a quarter of a century into his recording career for his collected thoughts on the works of Tchaikovsky to appear.

Given his track record of excellence in similar repertoire, the brilliance of the Gothenburg Orchestra and BIS’s all-round technical expertise I would assume this would go straight to the top of any list of modern recordings. But far from it, this set has had me scratching my head in perplexed confusion. Don’t get me wrong, nothing at all is bad here and much is good but it is hard not to be rather disappointed with the sum of the results. In brief, this is the bringing together of a cycle of six individual discs recorded and released over a three year period from 2002. The couplings of the discs are identical to their original releases right down to the complete extensive (and very good) liner notes being included in a 120 page booklet written in English, German and French. Keeping the original couplings was a very good idea – each disc is a well planned concert of a Symphony followed by orchestral works which range from the very familiar to the completely unknown. In each case these satellite works complement the symphony well. From memory I am certain the single discs were released in a SA-CD format (CD1; CD2; CD4; CD5; CD6). As far as I can tell – there are no logos to this effect on the box and I do not have the suitable decoding equipment – this is a standard CD release. BIS have been very canny in the past re-releasing cycles of performances at very keenly discounted prices. This set is sold as “6 CDs for the price of 2” which means it can be found on-line for as little as £24.00 including delivery although rather oddly seem to have decided that 2 CDs costs £64.00! The lower price represents tremendous value for over seven and a half hours of music in high quality recorded sound.

But now for the doubts that start to creep in. This is listed as “Orchestral works including Symphonies 1-6”. Crucially, there is no recording of the Manfred Symphony. Not everyone’s favourite work I know but surely vital in such a survey. Much of the time in the symphonies in particular Järvi seems out of sorts. His remarkable knack – demonstrated in disc after disc – has been to given performances of real propulsion and a kind of spontaneous flamboyance. I would challenge many listeners to recognise this for long tracts as Järvi’s work. Too often long passages go by in an almost perfunctory manner. Do not get me wrong, there is much to admire here – clean and controlled playing well to the fore. But I don’t want to admire this music, I want to love it. I am sure there is an audience for objective Tchaikovsky and if so that group will be well pleased by the performances here but it does not include me. A characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s compositional style is the use of sequence and repetition to build tension. The skill of any conductor is subtly to grade dynamics and tempo to aid the sense of mounting emotion leading to those glorious moments of cathartic release by which you will either love or loathe Tchaikovsky. I make no bones about the fact that I am in the former camp and would have put money on Järvi judging those passages to perfection. But no, the early symphonies in particular suffer from a very plain approach to the bending of tempi; it verges on the bland. I could not help wondering if Järvi likes the first three symphonies very much. More curious is the fact that the fires of inspiration burn high and low within the same work. I must repeat that there are many incidental beauties to be heard along the way – some ravishing wind solos in particular and string playing that is never less than clean and brilliant.

To take the discs in order. Symphony No.1 “Winter Daydreams” – a favourite of mine – suffers the most routine performance in the set. The finale has more adrenaline coursing through its veins but it’s too little too late. The couplings – which are generally better than the main works are likewise far from attention-grabbing. One of Järvi’s Chandos discs early on during his tenure in Detroit was a fine and exciting complete incidental music to The Snow Maiden – only in the last movement of the four selected here – Dance of the Buffoons [CD1 track 8] do the shackles fall away and the music rollocks along. And when it does it is little short of sensational. It might be my imagination that the recording perspective is slightly more recessed than on some BIS discs – perhaps a legacy of the preferred SA-CD format – but this is still very good engineering supporting excellent playing. But immediately after this uplifting movement the routine returns with a very penny plain Romeo and Juliet – played in the standard final revision. The sword fight sequences are neat and accurate but lacking in vehemence and the love theme is lovely ... but surely that is not enough? One passage does work well – the dragging and weary funeral music at the end has a perfect “all passion spent” quality but then the timp crescendo to the final stabbed chords is singularly uninvolving. The Symphony No.2 ‘Little Russian’ fares best of the early symphonies although here the reverse of the First Symphony is true with the finale least impressive after a very good three opening movements – somehow the folk-festival atmosphere never quite catches wing as one would want. The reasons to hear this disc though are the three couplings all of which are excellent. The very early Overture in F major (1866) finds Järvi in what I would call typical form – at last the swagger and bravura are on display. Likewise in the Festive Overture on the Danish National Anthem and The Storm Op.74. The former of these two works – another 1812 Overture in spirit receives the best recorded performance I have heard – infinitely better than the wan Dudarova and the adequate Russian Symphony Orchestra on an old Olympia double disc set (1993, OCD512A/B) or the trail-blazing Geoffrey Simon back on Chandos (1982, CHAN9190). From the recording dates I see these come from the same month and year as the Symphony No.5 and the Elegy which are also among the best performances. The Symphony No.3 ‘Polish’ has always fared least well on disc and is the most elusive of the six numbered works. With its five movements there seems to be a pre-echo of the four orchestral suites Tchaikovsky would write in the decade between the 4th and 5th Symphonies. The finale is more successful here again and the third movement Andante elegiaco is moving in its simplicity but overall the lack of emotional engagement from the podium is palpable. More good couplings save the day with the rare Dances of the Chambermaids and very rare incidental music to Dmitri the Pretender and Vassily Shuisky proving to be real finds. In that company the Serenade for Nikolai Rubinstein’s Name Day – again familiar from the recording made by Simon for Chandos – rates as positively old-hat but benefits from a lovely performance. Even the Onegin excerpts with a measured Waltz and a somewhat regal Polonaise are rather good.

Reaching the Symphony No.4 suddenly Järvi seems more interested in making interpretive interventions again. So where the earlier works plodded along in a kind of ‘tempo-ordinario’ here Järvi is back to his more typical style of wide tempo variations and expressive rubato – a style I have to say I much prefer. So relatively speaking the opening fate fanfare of this symphony and the following first subject is quite steady but then the development moves on. I’m not sure Järvi quite brings off these fluctuations but it’s so much better that he’s trying. The trumpets generally feel a fraction recessed compared to the other brass but overall the cumulative power of the work is well conveyed. There is some crackingly fleet and nimble woodwind playing – the piccolo as neat as I have ever heard – and some beautifully expressive oboe solos too. My only thought is that the return of the fate fanfare thundering out interrupting the festive finale is not as terrifyingly implacable as I have heard. After an impressive symphony, a disappointing Serenade for Strings. The liner makes the point that Tchaikovsky wanted this to be played by as large a string group as possible – the Gothenburg strings feel underpowered – the wonderful chorale that frames the work having none of the sonorous weight it must have. Indeed the return of this motif at the end sounds painfully literal and uninvolved - very disappointing indeed. All the more so because the third movement Elegie receives a performance of rapt and hushed intensity. The Elegy in Memory of I.V. Samarin is another work of great rarity and is delightful. The performance of the Symphony No.5 is similar to the fourth benefiting from the ebb and flow that is crucial to the success of a Tchaikovsky performance. A serenely lyrical third movement waltz is a real charmer in Järvi’s hands and the finale has an exciting swagger with the Gothenburg brass caught thrillingly. If fate in the 4th Symphony was not terrifying enough then here in the fifth the ultimate triumph over fate is well projected. A good Voyevoda and a routine Capriccio Italien complete the disc.

The Symphony No.6 Pathétique is a remarkable work on so many levels; musical, biographical or confessional. The emotional arc of the work is as powerful as any in the entire repertoire of Romantic music. Given that 4 and 5 marked an improvement on the early works I had relatively high hopes but this disc of the Pathétique encapsulates all of the technical brilliance but musical flaws of this set. The engineering is remarkable at allowing telling and subtle details of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration to register and the huge dynamic range of the disc is capable of resolving the merest murmur on the clarinet or a wall of brass. But the emotion displayed here is perfunctory at best. If you imagine the opening movement represents a kind of Russian Abschied what you get here feels like moderate regret; where are the tears … where is the grief? The second movement 5/8 ‘waltz’ is elegant and cool which works well but the last two movements disappoint once again. The 3rd movement March/Scherzo should surely strain for exuberance tinged with an almost manic hysteria; a last vain attempt to escape his fate. Here we have a performance of superb control and immaculate execution but singularly lacking in the theatre of the moment. The Finale remains one of the most extraordinary pieces in the repertoire – a resigned descent to death. Again I found myself listening to the detail of Tchaikovsky’s composition rather than being captivated by the whole. So a superbly proficient performance but one of almost total disengagement. Because this is such a great work it still nearly works but when the same musical principles are applied to a lesser work it falls flat. And so it proves with Francesca da Rimini. In the right hands this is one of Tchaikovsky’s most compelling and exciting works. Here it verges on the humdrum with some passages simply dull.

Summing up this set is harder than one might think. For a first time buyer of a tranche of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music I don’t think anyone would be disappointed because the music remains as powerful as ever and the recordings are very fine. So far in this review – except for the mention of Dudarova I have avoided comparisons deliberately. For the simple reason that even when Järvi is good in the symphonies he never once dislodges my allegiance to older versions. Tchaikovsky is one of those composers I really enjoy so I have rather too many cycles of his symphonies. Even at bargain price – which this set undoubtedly is – competition is fierce. On seven Brilliant Classics discs (99792) Muti and the Philharmonia/New Philharmonia are recorded in resplendent late analogue/pretty good early digital which includes Manfred and some other ‘standard’ couplings. The symphonies are excellent – Muti at his young compelling best, the couplings, mainly from his Philadelphia days, less so. The old (1962-66) Philips/Igor Markevitch/LSO cycle has been just re-released on Newton Classics (8802036) – only Symphonies 1-6 split over 4 discs but with a price advantage – around £14.00. I know this from the previous Philips incarnation (1997, 8 CDs CD 456 187-2PB8 which included a powerful Francesca da Rimini played by the New Philharmonia – originally just the symphonies on 4 CDs - 425 848-2) so I do not know if the re-mastering is the same but these are exciting performances in decent 1960s sound. Cheaper still, you can download the former Vox Turnabout cycle (VoxBox CD5X3603) from Maurice Abravanel and his Utah Symphony Orchestra (the couplings are some orchestral pieces by various ensembles) for less than £8.00 the lot. The MP3 transfers are really quite good (256 kps) but unless budget is the prime consideration the playing and recording are not anywhere near as good the immediate competition. I do not know the Pletnev/DG cycle (7 discs – including a Manfred and similar ‘standard’ repertoire couplings for anything from £16.00 up) for the simple reason that I don’t find much heart in Pletnev’s orchestral interpretations once the Russian brilliance has been removed. Which leaves me my two enduring favourite cycles; Rostropovich (EMI Classics) and Svetlanov (earlier set on Aulos). Neither are exactly mainstream choices but whenever I need a heart-on-sleeve dose of Russian romanticism I turn to Svetlanov and his live cycle on Warner (Warner Svetlanov Edition 5101124482 - 5 discs – no Manfred and relatively expensive – around £28.00) recorded in Japan. No extras and not great sound but what extraordinary commitment from conductor and players – here is a Polish to make you think it is a great work. But for all-round value, superb playing, classic analogue recording in the Kingsway Hall and a conductor willing to impose his musicianship and make choices I still find Rostropovich second to none. Many find him slow and wayward but for me the cumulative power is overwhelming. Add a mighty Manfred and a couple of ‘standard’ Fantasies on 5 discs for £14.00 and there need be no second thoughts. Yes, the symphonies split over discs but how recently we happily turned over LPs every twenty-five minutes without complaint. It is worth noting that both of these cycles were produced as a result of intensive music-making over a compressed time-frame; a few weeks – for Rostropovich, or remarkably just days in Svetlanov’s case.

Returning to this Järvi/BIS cycle I would recommend the set for the rarities it contains – perhaps BIS should fillet these performances out onto a single disc. Good though two of the later symphonies are no single performance in this set displaces old favourites. Cross-referencing the recording dates with the pieces that work least well there does appear to be some correlation. Which leads one to the conclusion that in music, as in sport, class is permanent but form is temporary – too often here Järvi seems ‘off-form’. Recently I enjoyed the second volume of the Chandos survey of the Halvorsen Orchestral works (review) which exhibited the old virtues of a classic Järvi interpretation – flair and fantasy, qualities missing all too often from the main works here.

Nick Barnard

Full track listing:

CD 1
Symphony No.1 in G minor, Winter Daydreams, Op.13 [39:30]
The Snow Maiden, Op.12: Introduction. [5:30]; Entr’acte. [1:16]; Melodrama. [4:56]; Dance of the Buffoons [4:39]
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare [19:29]
CD 2:
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Little Russian, Op.17 (1879 version) [32:26]
Overture in F major (1866 version) [11:47]
Festive Overture on the Danish National Anthem in D major, Op.15 (1892 version) [12:09]
The Storm (Groza), Overture, Op.76 [14:37]
CD 3:
Symphony No.3 in D major, Polish, Op.29 [42:17]
The Voyevoda, Op.3: Entr’acte and Dances of the Chambermaids. [9:51]
Dmitri the Pretender and Vassily Shuisky: Introduction to Act I.[3:48]; Mazurka. [2:46]
Serenade for Nikolai Rubinstein’s Name Day [3:12]
Eugene Onegin, Op.24: Entr’acte and Waltz.[7:48] Polonaise.[5:02]
CD 4:
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 [42:53]
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op.48 [30:10]
Elegy in Memory of I.V. Samarin for string orchestra [5:50]
CD 5:
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 [46:31]
The Voyevoda, symphonic ballad, Op.78 [13:00]
Capriccio italien, Op.45 [15:28]
CD 6:
Symphony No.6 in B minor Pathétique, Op.74 [43:13]
Francesca da Rimini, fantasy for orchestra, Op.32 [24:48]

Too often here Järvi seems off-form.