Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY
(1840 – 1893)
Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36 (1877/1878) [41:10]
Waltz from Serenade in C, op.48 (1880) [3:41]
Serenade in C, op.48 (1880) [30:15]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 26 April 1949 (Symphony) and 27 April 1949 (Waltz), Symphony
Hall, Boston; 16 August 1949, Theatre–Concert Hall, Tanglewood (Serenade).
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 247 [75:06]
Here are two historical documents of prime importance. They
represent the old world, Koussevitzky had studied with Arthur
Nikisch in Berlin, and the new, Cantelli studied at the Milan
Conservatory under Arrigo Pedrollo. Both recordings were made
two years before the conductors died, thus both are the work
of musicians at the very end of their careers, but here’s the
irony. Koussevitzky’s interpretation is the result of half a
century of music-making, whereas Cantelli’s professional career
was only ten years old at the time of this performance.
Both are totally electrifying, Cantelli having the edge in that
his is a live performance and thus there is that added tension
which one gets from such an event. Tension is the hallmark of
the first movement, and Cantelli drives the music irrevocably
forwards, there’s even an underlying nervousness in the jaunty
second theme. It’s a hard fought battle and the end is devastating
in its power. This is a very special interpretation indeed.
The slow movement is richer than one might expect, and the middle
section dances, not gaily but with a purpose. Some may feel
that it borders on the heavy-handed but Cantelli is always just
the right side of letting the music get out of hand. Whilst
the winsomeness of the marvellous oboe tune is somewhat lost
in the overall conception, he makes his vision work with very
satisfactory results. The scherzo is delightfully fun-filled,
with vibrant pizzicato strings, sparkling woodwinds and bluff
brass. This is a very nicely conceived interlude before the
fiery finale taken at a slightly deliberate tempo, which gives
time for the fantastic runs to register cleanly and clearly.
This is a fantastic performance, it’s in superb sound and we
are given a little of the audience’s enthusiasm at the end –
which one wants to join for one feels elated. Rossini’s La
Cenerentola Overture makes for a delicious makeweight.
Whereas Cantelli, the young man, might think that fate cannot
affect him and thus gives a dangerously vibrant account of Tchaikovsky’s
4th, the older Koussevitzky understands the
inevitability of kismet and thus he sees the first movement
as music full of nervous energy, restless, questing. Here the
second subject is held back, looking for its place in the grand
scheme of things. Whereas Cantelli sticks to his tempo from
start to finish Koussevitzky pulls it around to suit his emotional
thoughts. Both readings work equally well and it is testimony
to Tchaikovsky’s skill that he can create a work which can take
two such different approaches. Cantelli may have delivered a
rich sound to the slow movement, but it’s as nothing compared
to the death by sumptuous orchestral textures Koussevitzky gives
us. This does go slightly over–the–top, but there’s sincerity
in every bar and thus we know that it’s well meant and has been
considered prior to recording. The scherzo is fast, almost too
fast, and there is the slight feeling of discomfort from the
poor strings who pluck as fast as they can – excitement seems
to be on Koussevitzky’s agenda for this movement, rather than
playfulness. But again, with all three elements of the music
taken into consideration it’s obviously exactly how the conductor
sees the music, and one cannot argue with a well thought out
interpretation. The finale is a tour de force of orchestral
playing and it’s certainly exciting. The Waltz from the Serenade
for Strings was issued as the coupling for the Symphony and
it has a very nice dancing lilt to it.
Koussevitzky’s complete recording of the Serenade is in a closer,
and drier, acoustic and this tends to emphasise the hardness
of the strings. That said, it cannot disguise a very well thought
out, if occasionally hard-driven, performance. Tempi are standard
and unsurprising, and the large string body is well captured.
The upper strings have a glassy sheen to them and I don’t know
if this is because of Koussevitzky or the recording engineer.
This performance isn’t for the casual listener, it’s far too
specialised in its outlook, and the sound might not be found
to be acceptable. For a full red–bloodied account of the Serenade
go to Barbirolli’s 1964 recording with the London Symphony (EMI
Phoenixa 63962. coupled with a fiery account of Tchaikovsky’s
5th Symphony in a 1959 Hallé account).
As to the Symphony both these disks offer excellent performances,
albeit different interpretations. The sound on Cantelli’s recording
is the better of the two, and Koussevitzky offers a heavier
view of the work. I will not be drawn. Buy them both, you won’t
be disappointed as both performances are worthy of attention.
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