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
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,
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