CD 1 [69:37]
Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 Winter Reveries [47:31]
Slavonic March, Op.31 [9:25]
Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem op.15 [12:41]
CD 2 [67:26]
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 Little Russian [33:04]
Fatum, Op.77 [18:35]
Ouverture solennelle - 1812 Op.49 [15:47]
CD 3 [65:42]
Symphony No.3 in D, Op.29 "Polish" [46:26]
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture [19:15]
CD 4 [67:08]
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 [43:16]
Francesca da Rimini, Op.32 [23:52]
CD 5 [65:39]
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 [46:34]
Hamlet - Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare, Op.67 [19:05]
CD 6 [77:11]
The Voyevode, Op.78 [14:10]
Capriccio italien, Op.45 [17:03]
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 Pathétique [46:58]
CD 7 [75:34]
The Tempest, Op.18 [21:41]
Manfred Symphony, Op.58 [53:33]
This set underlines various lessons. One of them is not to disdain the first three symphonies. They may not have the torrid solar flares of the last three but they certainly deserve as much attention as comes the way of Balakirev 1, the Borodins, the Glazunovs and the Lyapunovs.
Pletnev is a most caring and thoughtful shaper of moods as the First Symphony shows. The playing is finely nuanced to match the strong balletic character. Indeed it made me think of Nutcracker more than once. The finale is handled with more natural passion by Bernstein with Pletnev and his RNO sounding laboured here rather than possessed. I admit the music at this point does not help. The Marche Slave makes peace with Russian nationalism and recalls the Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Sardar (from the Caucasian Sketches) but with those passionate Tchaikovskian hallmarks. It is good to hear the melodramatics of the Festival Overture on the Danish Anthem even if there are echoes or pre-echoes of 1812. The trumpet at 3.30 sounds perfectly placed in this lively resonant acoustic.
The Second Symphony is heard in its last revision. Once again we are reminded that in the 1870s Tchaikovsky, while abjuring nationalism, made common cause with the likes of Borodin and Balakirev and did this with style. The second movement recalls moments in the Fifth Symphony but without quite the same spective sturm und drang. This is more balletic. The third movement forms links with the “apotheosis of the dance” in Beethoven 7 with a dash of Nutcracker. The finale looks to the theatre again but stiffened with whirling folk-dance material. Fate was composed in 1868 and is an engaging example of a tragic mood that he was to employ with greater force and mastery in Francesca and Romeo and Juliet. Pletnev is an attentive advocate and this is well worth hearing even if Markevitch (Philips) is a more headlong champion of this rare piece. Rising from chamber intimacy to the extremes of Imperial bombast the 1812 Overture is not the chaff that we may have been tempted to conclude. This 1880 piece is reverent and thoughtful exploring a realm for which Tchaikovsky had great regard but then after some surprisingly Schumann-like passages flinging all restraint aside for some concluding the haughty and warlike revelry. If you listen with open ears there is much more of the lyricist here than of the tub-thumper - Victor Hochhauser had a lot to answer for not to mention the phalanx of hi-fi gurus of the 1960s and 1970s! The bells in this case are rather a modest presence though the orchestra at large - and especially the strings - play up a storm and the artillery impresses. Does anyone have any details of the artillery effects used?
The Third Symphony's five movements are relaxed and inhabit the mirliton world of the ballet. The moods are pastel subtle rather than painted with garish emotionalism. This is enjoyable as a character suite with Pletnev attentively limning in delicious details. The summation comes in the sturdy finale in a manner which is more Glazunov than the magus/victim of the emotional storms to come. Speaking of which, Pletnev's Romeo and Juliet ends the third disc. This is craftily weighed and paced. Much of it is understated. There is no neon dazzle under the skin unlike the more obviously alluring Stokowski which still sounds wonderful from 1959 (NY Stadium, Everest and HDTT) or a year later the superb Monteux and the LSO in Vienna. Pletnev has the edge in terms of quality of sound and the dramatic sections still hum with high tensile power - all more so because the surrounding poetics are low key – an almost English reserve.
The Fourth Symphony is my favourite among the Seven though Manfred supplants it from time to time. However the Fourth has been with me for as long as I have been gripped by concert music. This dates back to an inspired BBCTV production of Ivanhoe in the late-1960s which used the symphony for the title and incidental music. The stereo Mravinsky/Leningrad PO on DG retains pride of place though I also remember with very great affection a 1970s LP of Barenboim conducting the work - the CBS disc included a copy of the miniature full score. Pletnev handles this rather like his way with Romeo and Juliet. The lower key poetics are handled almost casually certainly with under-dramatised natural sensitivity. The scherzo - pizzicato third movement goes with a confiding swing and that hallmark microscopic attention to dynamics. The two outer movements have plenty of drippingly crimson meat reserved for the brass. Pletnev lays into the finale with a fiery whiplash. For those who find Mravinsky just too meltingly headlong Pletnev has the answer. His recording is in truly splendid sound seemingly natural and in keeping with the emotional campaign that is Tchaikovsky's plot.
Another superheated score comes in the shape of Francesca da Rimini. Ahronovich's visit to London, the LSO and the RFH in the early 1980s produced a gloriously molten concert performance - not as yet issued on CD (come on BBC Legends!). More practically any Francesca has to square up to the Stokowski 1958 Everest recording with the NY Stadium Orchestra. The difference is pretty much the same as indicated earlier on in relation to Romeo and Juliet. Stokowski is a possessed and feral enchanter and his way with the work in 1959 has the trees bend in the whooping gale. Pletnev is ferocious enough but gives minatory brooding its head. It's a fine account again and ranks among the nest. If you want an even more elemental reading then try one recommended tome by Nick Barnard - it's one on an old and dead and gone Olympia OCD and the conductor is Ovchinnikov. Pletnev embraces the romance of the piece and makes as much of a success of it as he does with Romeo and Juliet. There's also some lovingly calculated and very satisfying stereo effects.
Russian playing but without that soviet stryle bray in the brass contributions. Pity. Who drummed into those young and old players that they had to sound like Boston or New York or London or Stockholm? At the end of Francesca though the brass walls, gale-bent string thickets and furious percussion are given their wall-banging heads. Once again though no resonance is allowed for the tam-tam – shame!
The Fifth Symphony is on CD 5. This is a good and in the finale better than good performance, majoring on the strengths of the cycle as a whole – sane exegesis, truly inspirational sound (sample the finale) and wonderful stereo separation (try start of III). By a hair’s breadth it is not quite as well rounded and exciting as Monteux and the LSO (Vanguard). Nor is it as molten as Mravinsky, Dudamel (DG) or Stokowski in an extraordinary performance on Cameo Classics with the International Festival Orchestra. That said this is one of those performances that is likely to sustain its hold on you over the years and the craggy brass in the finale are packed with adrenaline. This is followed by a musically magical Hamlet – no need to knit your brows over which bar represents which part of the story. Just sit back and enjoy this superb piece of Tchaikovsky writing and interpretation.
The Pathétique follows a stormily grumpy Voyevoda interlaced with some uncannily supernatural and very attractive Sadko-style Rimskian pages. Capriccio Italien, alongside the First Piano Concerto, 1812, Marche Slave and Romeo and Juliet was for may years a spectacular ‘pops’ companion at 1960s and 1970s concerts in the London parks by the Victor Hochhauser organisation. It’s played ramrod straight here, with caring precision and pleases all over again not least in the engineers’ spatial placement of the percussion and brass. The Sixth Symphony was recorded previously by the same forces in 1991 in London by Virgin Classics (VC7 59661-2) and that disc had a great reputation but, by at least one account, inferior sound. It’s glorious – try the whirlwind violins at the strutting peak of the third movement (5:04) and the tender violin-borne and horn-lofted waves of the finale (3:50).
The seventh disc starts with a passionate yet nationalistic The Tempest. It is a rung down from Hamlet and two down from Romeo and Francesca but it is still well worth getting to know in this recording. This Manfred is also passionate and instantly engages and holds the listener. I cannot claim that this has the fervour of Maazel (Eloquence) the blistering intensity of Svetlanov (BMG) or of the raw elemental power of Symeonov (Vista Vera) but it is no routine run-through. Pletnev for example takes trudging italicised care with the phrasing at the start of the finale. He is blessed with poetically distanced harp playing (11:52). He tellingly sculpts the welling up of emotion and places it unerringly with the passion-spent exhaustion of the last few bars.
Markevitch is still well worth seeking out in Tchaikovsky. He can be heard in a recent splendid reissue on Newton Classics which I hope to review here. It was out ‘originally’ on a big Philips box (426 048-211194) in 1991. He is quite the emotional magician by the side of his own cooler music. I also like Svetlanov and Rozhdestvensky - try the wonderful Regis/Alto issues whether LSO or most recently the Russian State - though I have not heard the latter in the first three symphonies. Also excellent, though largely unsung, is Temirkanov and the RPO on BMG-RCA and Jansons on Chandos.
I hope it is clear that this set is highly desirable. Compare it with 449 967-2GH5 from 1996 when DG issued only the six numbered symphonies without any ‘fillers’. It can be counted in the company of such fine Collectors Edition Universal sets as the Kodaly (Kertesz/Dorati), the Brahms (Haitink) and the Prokofiev operas (not yet reviewed).
The notes by David Nice though short in supply are a good backdrop. You can always go to Warrack or Brown for more.
These discs are well filled and the recordings, which are of 1993-96 vintage and made in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, are admirable with a great sense of three-dimensional imaging and satisfying musical insight.