Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet (1869, 1880) [19:23]
Capriccio Italien (1879) [14:40]
Francesca da Rimini (1877) [23:32]
Eugene Onegin (1879): Polonaise [4:33]; Waltz [6:12]
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Kogan
rec. Moscow Film Synchro Studios, October 1990. DDD
ALTO ALC 1033 [68:22]

Liszt had the gist of the tone poem and wrote more than a dozen including the memorable Les Preludes, the Beecham-favoured Orpheus and the less celebrated Hunnenschlacht. However it was Tchaikovsky whose creative stream of music most naturally found an answer to his expressive needs in the tone poem.

Robin Vaughan's Musical Concepts hosts the labels Regis, Forum and Alto. While Regis seems to have fallen into the background and Forum has always been less profuse Alto has burgeoned. Its realm – by no means exclusive - is that of the digital reissue regenerating material found on now-defunct labels such as Collins and ASV.

The present disc follows hot on the heels of the acclaimed Rachmaninoff cycle. Alto have picked up some rather fine Tchaikovsky material recorded some twenty years ago by that elite team Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz and never issued. The three Rachmaninov symphonies with Pavel Kogan conducting are strong contenders. Kogan has no truck with blatant easy choices. His Tchaikovsky is characterised by the most tender and finely judged dynamics, stresses and emphases. His Romeo and Juliet ranks with Monteux's fine LSO recording on Vanguard.

The Rachmaninov discs have a technicolor glare – not disagreeable but certainly marmite-distinctive. This one is more suave - at least in Romeo. On the other hand the gloves are off for that most unsubtle of works Capriccio Italien. The blare and rasp of the opening fanfare are remarkable. On the other hand the buzzing and accelerating tension of the strings and woodwind before another garish triumph of brass and cymbal crashes is to treasure. The carefree Neapolitan song at 5:20 is limpid and lissom and with a delightful chuckle. More than ever does this piece come over as a balletic divertissement. This is old-style Soviet playing and completely irresistible in a world of bland generalisation and softened contrast. Rhythmic exuberance is deeply etched and sturdily sustained.

As for that furnace of the emotions, Francesca da Rimini there is a long Russian tradition. Rather than the over-heated and pressurised intensity of Ovchinnikov or Mravinsky, Kogan tends towards sensitivity. Francesca is a great work and the finest among Tchaikovsky's oeuvre in its concentration and succinct expression of ideas and drama. Kogan handles the work's many tender transitions (as at 9:23) with a loving-kindness that does not preclude the roar of tragedy in the climaxes. This is to the fore at 18:35 where whooping horns are heard in ecstatic collision with blaring trumpets. This delivers the same engrossingly coarse edge heard at the start of Capriccio Italien.
This may not have the almost demented fervour of the Ovchinnikov, Stokowski or Golovanov or the spontaneous fire and tears of an Ahronovitch but it stands very high in the Tchaikovsky ‘Hall of Honour’ stakes. When I hear Kogan revelling in the erotic throb of the massed strings I wonder whether I could be underestimating the result.

The Onegin extracts share the same qualities - rapt and taut rhythmic precision, a big sound signature, an unshakable forward-moving élan and a sense of the true pulsating Tchaikovskian tradition.

I urge all true Tchaikovskians to hear this disc.

Rob Barnett

I urge all true Tchaikovskians to hear this disc.