Despite numerous requests from the public, Arturo Toscanini conducted very little Tchaikovsky — only Manfred
and the Pathétique
, among the composer's symphonies. His protégé
, Guido Cantelli, did conduct Tchaikovsky's music often, and his performances are thus valuable not only on their considerable musical merits, but as a hint of how the Maestro himself might have played it, had he deigned to do so.
Certainly Cantelli's account of the E minor Symphony, taken from a WGBH-FM broadcast, strongly suggests the no-nonsense style of his mentor. The atmospheric "slow" introduction — actually an Andante
, though you'd not always know that — flows. The Allegro con anima
goes forthrightly, at a swift tread, with numerous trim, precise accents giving point to the phrases. Now and then, the conductor's manner seems almost too terse: the third theme, marked Molto più tranquillo
, more or less resumes the original tempo the first time around, and actually moves faster
in the recapitulation. Even so, Cantelli's glowing, lyrical way with the themes avoids any sense of brusqueness.
A similar directness of attack marks the other three movements. The slow movement is another Andante
— here Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
("with some freedom") — and it's good to hear it played so, rather than as a wallowing, lachrymose Adagio
. I say this even though the horn almost reflexively sticks a bit on the opening upbeat. As the strings take up the theme, they lean into it with warm, focused tone. Cantelli practically hurtles into the tutti
statement of the motto theme, to dramatic effect. The Waltz is graceful and mobile, with Cantelli allowing the bassoon and clarinet a bit of rubato
in their statement. The transition from the scurrying middle section to the waltz's return is elegant. The Finale
's introduction is a proud affirmation and the Allegro vivace
moves along, with enough space for the strings to "dig into" the tone, and to allow the syncopations to register cleanly. The brass statement of the motto is full-throated and the coda is unfussy and triumphant.
If this all sounds rather similar to Cantelli's NBC Symphony performance (Music and Arts, 2 CDs, MACD0602 with the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies), that's because it is. The Boston Symphony, however, plays with greater refinement and tonal beauty. The string tone — this was the Koussevitzky era, remember — is warm and suave; the solo horn is velvety, and the woodwinds poised. The players take the forthright tempi in stride, responding with trenchant projection and alert rhythmic address.
Pristine Audio's mastering and transfer, even in monaural, reproduces the string-dominated passages with a room-filling richness. The trade-off is that, at a volume setting that does the strings justice, the louder brassy bits, with their uniformly close perspective, become edgy and fatiguing.
I'm not parting with my Music and Arts set, but for those who don't have or want it, this taut, compact performance offers a fresh slant on the Fifth Symphony. If you must have stereo, Markevitch (Philips) comes closest to the Cantelli paradigm.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky Symphony 5
Note: Pristine also offer Cantelli and the NBCSO playing Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
as well as another version of the Fifth Symphony with the La Scala orchestra on PASC316