Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor Pathétique (1893) [45:41]
Nutcracker Suite (1892) [21:38]
Large Symphony Orchestra, Ministry of Culture, Russian Federation/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Symphony)
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Kogan (Suite)
rec. Large Studio, Moscow Radio, Russia 1989 (Symphony); Moscow Film Synchro Studios Russia October 1990 (Suite)
ALTO ALC1106 [67:43]
We are indebted to Alto for taking up the baton of re-releasing many marvellous recordings from the old Melodiya catalogue previously handled by the now sadly defunct Olympia label. The Svetlanov/Myaskovsky symphony cycle immediately springs to mind as a particular jewel. Together with Svetlanov, Kondrashin and Mravinsky, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky was a pillar of the Melodiya catalogue and for some collectors less prone to the musical extremes of the former conductor in particular. Both in concert and on disc Rozhdestvensky has always been one of my favourite Soviet/Russian conductors so I was looking forward to hearing him tackle Tchaikovsky’s last and greatest symphony. The recording dates from 1989 putting it right at the end of the Soviet era with the associated characteristics of engineering and playing that one might expect. No engineer is credited with the original recording but this reminded me a lot of discs recorded/produced by Severin Pazhukin. This is wildly crude engineering; instruments sit on your lap, the brass howl with buzz-saw, health-and-safety-threatening proximity and the sound-stage lacks any kind of depth. To say it is unsubtle is an understatement. Sometimes, in a rather guilty manner I actually enjoy this approach – in certain repertoire and performances it can make for an exciting roller coaster ride. My big disappointment here is how run of the mill Rohzdestvensky’s interpretation is. Certainly for the first three movements there is little in the music-making that lifts it out of the average. If you factor in the blaring sound quality and little lazy ensemble flaws – silly things where wind and strings do not hold notes for quite the same length – and it is hard to imagine this performance superseding any pre-existing favourites in your collection. In such a wonderful and compelling piece there are exciting passages and the Ministry of Culture brass hurl out salvos of violent savagery during the first movement’s dramatic central section. But, and I really did not expect this to be such an easy choice to make, for a performance in the ‘old’ Soviet tradition turn to either the analogue 1960s USSRSO version with Svetlanov or his live digital remake on Warner let alone the classic Mravinsky Leningrad Phil version on DG. Only in the finale does Rohzdestvensky imprint his own considerable musical personality on the performance finding a world-weary tread to match the heavy tone of the orchestral strings.
One of the minor mysteries of the recording industry is why Pavel Kogan’s recordings with Moscow State Symphony Orchestra have taken twenty years to be released. This is the first I have heard but the general reception of his Rachmaninov symphony cycle seems to have been very good. Here we get the standard suite Tchaikovsky extracted from The Nutcracker ballet – namely the Act 2 character dances framed by the Act miniature overture and march and the great Waltz of the Flowers. Although recorded only a year after the coupling the sound is much finer here and the Moscow players, while still unmistakeably Soviet, are a more refined group than their Culture Ministry colleagues. Essentially this is well-played version which emphasises the virtuosic/showpiece nature of the work more than it’s smiling face. The overture is brisk and neat as is the ensuing march. To my ear both are a fraction too fast to allow the inner parts to chuckle away as they should. Certainly these are way faster than danceable tempi. This is even more the case with the Trepak which is breathlessly thrilling and a tribute to the player’s skills. In contrast the most famous movements – The dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Waltz of the Flowers - suffer from very perfunctory performances from the stick. Again beautifully played and well balanced engineering but an almost total absence of phrasing. Fast tempi militates against the sensuality of the Arabian Dance while the Chinese Dance and Dance of the Mirlitons, although performed at fairly standard speeds are again hampered by an unsmilingly ‘straight’ approach.
Alto has already released the majority of the other symphonies in this cycle but the performance here has put me off seeking out the others. Even at bargain price point there are far too many other finer versions than this of both works – a rare Rohzdestvensky dud.
Nick Barnard
Even at bargain price point there are far too many other finer versions than this of both works – a rare Rohzdestvensky dud.

Rob Barnett thought more highly of this disc - review