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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Francesca da Rimini - Symphonic Fantasy, Op, 32 (1876) [22:04]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-8) [41:41]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 1-4 June 2011, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C 860 111 A [63:45]
 
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [45:24]
Hamlet Overture, Op. 67 (1888) [18:59]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 16-17 October 2008, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C 780 091 A [64:33]
 
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy-overture (1869, rev. 1870, 1880) [19:21]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’ * (1893) [45:55]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 17-18 June 2009; *2-3 June 2010, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C 832 101 A [66:16]

Not long ago I experienced Andris Nelsons in Tchaikovsky for the first time when I reviewed for Seen and Heard a thrilling performance of the Manfred Symphony that he gave with the CBSO in Birmingham. That was linked to their evolving Tchaikovsky cycle for Orfeo - the recording will appear in due course. It impelled me to catch up on the previous instalments in the series.
 
The earliest of the three discs couples the Fifth Symphony and Hamlet. This was set down very early in the partnership between Nelsons and the CBSO - he became their Music Director in 2008, the year the recordings were made. Actually, I believe this was the first symphony that they recorded together. In a conversation with Geoffrey Norris that forms part of the notes, Nelsons tells us that Tchaikovsky’s music has been important to him for a long time; indeed, he says: ‘From an early age Tchaikovsky was the composer who spoke to the soul immediately.’ He goes on to comment that the extensive CBSO discographies of his two predecessors, Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo, included no Tchaikovsky so there was an obvious opportunity for him to grasp in setting out to record a Tchaikovsky cycle in Birmingham. In passing, I wonder how comprehensive this cycle was originally intended to be: was it planned to include the first three symphonies, for example? With Nelsons now leaving Birmingham at the end of the 2014-15 season one wonders how feasible it will be for them to record much more Tchaikovsky or, indeed, to add to their Richard Strauss series. On the evidence of these three discs it must be hoped that conductor and orchestra will be able to expand their joint discography over the next couple of years.
 
It was intelligent to couple the Fifth Symphony with Hamlet: not only were both pieces composed around the same time but also, as Nelson says in the booklet: ‘Tchaikovsky asks himself, ‘To be or not to be?’ - what to do next [in the Fifth Symphony].’ Nelsons is very persuasive in the symphony. The solemn introduction to the first movement is nicely weighted and in the Allegro con anima he displays a fine feeling for Tchaikovsky’s music, bringing out the lyrical side but also investing the music with the right degree of passion. There’s a fine, melancholy horn solo at the start of the Andante cantabile and the playing of the oboist who follows on is no less good. In fact, here and elsewhere the playing of the CBSO is splendid and they work very effectively with their conductor in playing this music with delicacy or ardour, as appropriate. There’s balletic grace in the Waltz. In the finale, when we get to the Allegro vivace (2:58) Nelsons adopts a speed that is not as hectic as I’ve heard from a number of conductors. It’s true that a driving pace can be electrifying but you need to have the iron discipline of a Mravinsky to bring that off wholly successfully; there’s a risk that the music can become unstable if taken too fast. Nelsons chooses a tempo that has sufficient impetus yet which admits clarity of articulation. Mind you, nowadays, with several years of working with the CBSO behind him, I fancy he might step up the pace a bit. Nonetheless, the music is dramatic and fiery. The treatment of the last, martial appearance of the motto theme (9:47) is interesting. Nelsons comments that it’s not a simplistic triumph: there’s darkness there too and that’s how he plays it though I fancied I detected also some grandeur in his treatment.
 
I can never understand why we don’t hear Hamlet more often. It may not have quite as memorable music as Romeo and Juliet, especially the love theme in the latter work, but it’s still a very fine piece and when one hears it played as it is here its relative neglect is all the more inexplicable. The brooding opening is impressive and the first few minutes (to 4:55) are very intense in Nelsons’ hands. Then there’s real bite in the way the subsequent allegro material is delivered. The CBSO’s principal oboist does a very fine job with the Ophelia music (from 6:49); this is a touching, vulnerable characterisation. At the very end the brief elegy (from 17:46) is done with much feeling, though Nelsons avoids the trap of making the music sound overwrought.
 
In pairing the Sixth with Romeo and Juliet Nelsons couples two of the composer’s most popular and highly regarded works - and exposes himself to formidable rivalry in the CD catalogue. His performances can stand comparison with the best. As with the preceding disc, part of the notes consists of a conversation between Nelsons and Geoffrey Norris and, once again, it’s very illuminating. Faced with a “war horse” in the shape of the Sixth Symphony Nelsons modestly says: ‘my aim is not deliberately to do it differently but it is to look at Tchaikovsky’s life with an open heart, as sincerely as possible.’ He might have said the same of Romeo and Juliet, I’m sure. In these performances you won’t find novelty for the sake of it, yet somehow Nelsons manages to make both these familiar works sound fresh.
 
In Romeo and Juliet he sees the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets as a metaphor for the fact that in nineteenth-century Russia Tchaikovsky stood no chance of being accepted as a homosexual. Perhaps that’s why Nelsons is so successful in engendering real bite into the fight music. When the love theme first emerges (7:34) it’s presented in a relaxed, perhaps even contented way - and there’s some exquisite soft string playing to savour in these pages. When the love music returns after the resumption of the Montague/Capulet feud this time it’s sweepingly romantic, played with all the ardour for which one could wish. The ending (from 16:34) is well judged in all respects.
 
The reading of the Pathétique is no less impressive. The lovely Andante theme (4:50) starts tenderly, even modestly but as it is developed Nelsons invests the music with a wonderful surge and with well-controlled passion. Hereabouts he doesn’t underplay the emotion in the music but neither does he rush his fences. The Allegro vivo (from 9:41) is scalding. Later on the last few minutes are beautifully managed; I especially relished the beautifully phrased clarinet solo (from 16:09). The 5/4 movement emerges with grace and charm, the playing delicious; the marking is Allegro con grazia and the ‘con grazia’ element is most certainly present. Nelsons has an interesting view of the martial third movement, seeing it as the victory of Death and akin to Berlioz’s Marche au supplice; certainly, he says, it’s not a happy march. I’m not entirely sure about this: Tchaikovsky’s own scoring is arguably too bright for a march of victorious Death. That said, the music does take on some darker hues in the second half (from about 4:50) so perhaps there’s something in Nelsons’ view - or maybe Tchaikovsky intended the movement as one last fling before the deep melancholy of the finale? Either way, it’s marvellously done here. The finale begins with just a three-second break. I’m unsure if this recording was made under studio conditions - I suspect it was - but would Nelsons have allowed only such a minuscule gap in live performance? Be that as it may, as the movement begins to unfold you realise that the ineffable sadness in the music is acutely conveyed, though with no trace of hysteria. The playing is very eloquent and the reading has a strong emotional charge. I was very moved by it.
 
The most recent disc, like the first of this trio, couples works that were composed around the same time as each other. I’m unsure if Francesca da Rimini was recorded live in concert - though the dates suggest that it may have been. The symphony certainly was since it is followed by vociferous and prolonged applause. Francesca is a marvellous piece, one of my favourite Tchaikovsky works. When it’s performed with passion and flair as, for example, on Sir John Barbirolli’s 1969 New Philharmonia recording or the legendary one made in 1958 in New York by Stokowski, it can be a breathtaking experience. It’s splendidly done here. In the opening pages, which depict the lovers, Francesca and Paolo being tossed around eternally on the whirlwinds of hell, Nelsons and his orchestra whip up a graphically intense tempest. The love music is ushered in by a soulful clarinet solo (8:23). This extended section unfolds through much refined - and increasingly passionate - playing; the CBSO strings are especially ardent. The return of the whirlwinds (19:01) sweeps us to the shattering dénouement at full tilt. The final pages are tumultuous and my only regret is that Nelsons doesn’t hold back more the great doom-laden chords in the last few bars as some conductors do. This is a thrilling performance.
 
The symphony receives a pretty impressive reading also. The big first movement is gripping and often highly charged, though the more relaxed passages are elegantly done with some excellent contributions from the woodwind section. The music derived from the Fate motif is consistently urgent and potent and Nelsons brings out all the drama and turbulence in the movement. The melancholic Andantino is expressively done, though I like the way Nelsons keeps the music moving forward so as to avoid any mawkishness. Once again the soloists from the woodwind section distinguish themselves, not least the poignant bassoon solo at 7:47. The scherzo is deft while the finale is often dashing and very exciting. Nelsons drives the music hard but not to excess. At the end the Birmingham audience goes wild and I’m not really surprised. That siad, I think it’s legitimate to ask whether it was necessary to include on disc over 1:20 of applause. The playing time in the heading is as stated in the booklet but, in fact, the last movement plays for 8:06, meaning that the symphony actually lasts for 40:20. 
 
It can’t be easy for a conductor to contemplate recordings of such established repertoire pieces. What on earth can you say about them that hasn’t been said by countless maestros already? Picking up Nelsons’ point about the Pathétique I think it’s clear that he’s very deliberately and very sensibly decided not to try to say something ‘new’ about this music just for the sake of it. Instead, he’s realised that the best way with these scores is to play them as well as he can and to get as close to the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s music as possible. If I’m right in that assumption then I’d say he has certainly succeeded. These three discs contain very fine performances that made me listen to this very familiar music intently, taking nothing for granted. The playing of the CBSO is magnificent throughout. The recorded sound on all three discs is excellent. The first two discs, chronologically, may have been recorded under studio conditions and that the most recent one was taken down live - it’s obvious that’s the case with the Fourth Symphony. A little while ago, reviewing an Orfeo recording of Nelsons and the CBSO in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, I felt that the recording was too close for comfort, especially in the loud passages. That Shostakovich recording was made live in Symphony Hall just a matter of months after the recording of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. I mention this because there are no such issues with the recordings of any of the six works being considered here. Orfeo’s sound is consistently excellent. The documentation, authored by Geoffrey Norris, is very good.
 
I’m only sorry that I’ve not encountered these three CDs before. I’ve enjoyed all of them greatly and anyone wanting a good modern version of any of these scores can invest with confidence. Let’s hope there will be plenty more recordings by Nelsons and the CBSO before he departs for Boston. In particular, bring on Manfred.
 
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky symphonies


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