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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 1 in G minor, Op 13 Winter Dreams (1866) [46:30]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird: Suite (1910/1945) [33:59]*
BBC Symphony Orchestra, *Philharmonia Orchestra/Yevgeny Svetlanov
rec. live, Barbican, April 2002, *June 1996
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5007 [80:40]

Experience Classicsonline

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is a charming if spotty score. There’s more than a whiff of the ballet to its themes and colours. Yevgeny Svetlanov's vivid late-Sixties Melodiya recording has held up well for some forty years. The ICA Classics account, recorded in concert just two weeks before the conductor's death, would be hard pressed to match it. 

As with the conductor's other British remakes of his Soviet repertoire, the performance gains from more refined execution. Principal woodwinds are polished. The first movement's clarinet theme gains in wistful sweetness. The oboe in the slow movement, as expressive as before, is incomparably smoother. The BBC strings are warm and better blended than those of the USSR Symphony. The brass are far better controlled. In the finale, the fugue in the development is clean and energetic, while the coda's tutti chords are compact and brilliant.
Svetlanov's interpretation remains much the same as before. It’s spacious and atmospheric, and is realized with crisp accents and pointed articulation. If the climax of the first-movement exposition misses the headlong impulse of the earlier account, it's still full-throated and exuberant. The basses anticipate the pizzicato landing at 4:39 of the Adagio cantabile but the ensuing passage conveys a chilly expansiveness. In the Scherzo, some may prefer Markevitch's darting, mercurial approach (Philips/Universal). Svetlanov's hint of breadth allows for clear give and take among all the little melodic fragments. The Trio's waltz theme is graciously shaped. The finale is tricky, a thing of shreds, patches, and fugues. Svetlanov builds it in a convincing arc. The textures open out thrillingly as the Andante lugubre introduction moves into the Allegro moderato. The gradual acceleration through the rather bare transitional passage at 8:35 is expertly gauged. The climactic reprise, where the conductor once again uses a tricked-out bass drum part, is a bit stolid. That said, the conductor drives the one-in-a-bar coda effectively.
Colin Anderson, in the booklet, mentions that the conductor was "uncertain of gait and shaky of gesture". I can't vouch for his gait, but some moments audibly betray unclear signalling. The first movement's final wind chord suffers a wheezy attack instead of a clean, firm one. In the slow movement, besides that early pizzicato, there's the final soft woodwind chord before the coda, at 11:26, where one clarinet enters alone, with a brief wait before the flutes join in. Those familiar with the piece may find such details irritating on repeated hearings.
Unlike the Tchaikovsky, the Firebird Suite isn't actually a remake. Svetlanov used the standard 1919 arrangement in his Soviet recording. Here he plays the version that the composer stitched together in 1945 - perhaps to garner royalty payments - which interpolates several scenes between the Introduction and the Princesses' Round Dance. The extra music could have sounded like so much padding, but here it goes well. The second Pantomime is keenly articulated, with bracing rhythmic address. In the other movements, the spacious tempi bring expansive warmth to the low string-and-wind textures in the Pas de deux, and highlight Stravinsky's pointillistic flashes of color elsewhere.
The more familiar movements are colourful, but Svetlanov's breadth can turn into heaviness. The oboe plays the solo in the Princesses' Round Dance with unfussy lyricism, but the tempo slows when the strings enter, and some of the ritards are very protracted. The brass syncopations tend to drag down the Infernal Dance - though its conclusion brings a nice surge - and the long transition in the Finale again gets progressively slower. The Philharmonia sounds resplendent in the climaxes.
The recorded sound in both works is fine - I think the Barbican Centre acoustic, like that of New York's Avery Fisher Hall, gets a bum rap. I was impressed by the depth of the reproduction, which isn't just evident in big brass chords and drum-strokes. The two unison horns in Tchaikovsky's slow movement, for example, sound distinct from the horn solos.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Masterwork Index: The Firebird


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