Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.2 in C minor, op.17 Little Russian (1872) [29:38]
Symphony no.3 in D, op.29 Polish (1875)[39:53]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (op.17)
National Symphony Orchestra/Hans Kindler (op.29)
rec. unspecified locations; 1940/41 GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD2422 [70:05]
The two performances preserved on this disc were these
symphonies’ first American recordings. They are, therefore, of obvious
historical and musicological importance. They are also, though, well
worth hearing on artistic grounds. Hans Kindler’s conception of the
third symphony is distinctive and finely wrought, while, according to
Robert Matthew-Walker’s interesting booklet notes, Goossens’ Little
Russian has “[f]or many collectors ... never been surpassed”.
Before considering each performance in turn, it is worth noting that
both were issued on 78 rpm discs before any recordings had been made
in the USSR itself. They therefore preserve a Western tradition that
had yet to be widely influenced by the distinctive characteristics of
native Russian performances. In fact, the most notably consistent feature
of both these accounts is that they are often rather more brisk that
we are used to, although, as always when considering recordings made
for release on 78 rpm discs, that might merely reflect the requirements
of that era’s recording processes.
Eugene Goossens, the Cincinnati orchestra’s music director from 1933
until 1947, leads it in the Little Russian. The sound quality
is initially a little muffled, with the woodwinds, in particular, not
coming through terribly well. Matters improve in that respect within
just a few minutes, however, although even with clearer sound the violins
continue to come across as more than a little undernourished (2:15-2:30),
giving us a useful reminder that we are listening to Cincinnati and
definitely not to Philadelphia. Goossens really whips up the excitement
from 2:51 onwards and the performance becomes notably volatile and frenetic,
with especially notable contributions from the skilled string players.
The first movement excitement doesn’t let up from that point on, though
at 5:26-5:34 the brass fails to make the sort of impact that those later
Soviet recordings were soon to make familiar.
From the end of the first movement the sound is both more consistent
and of a better quality, revealing some fine music-making. The second
movement andantino puts more emphasis on the quasi moderato
injunction than any real marziale elements – this is less
Trooping the Colour than the Home Guard on parade. Nevertheless, the
quality of the playing is very good indeed and Goossens exhibits impressive
control over both orchestral balance and dynamics. Those positive
qualities are maintained throughout the allegro molto vivace third
The finale is launched in a very forthright manner and the subsequent
allegro vivace is driven and vigorous. Goossens builds up immense
excitement and the strings once again demonstrate their skilled playing
(6:48-7:00). The only disappointment comes with the climax where the
cathartic stroke on the tam-tam doesn’t reverberate for quite as long
it needs to in order to make its full impact. Nonetheless, this account
of the Little Russian emerges overall as both strong and compelling.
If anything, though, the Polish – recorded slighter earlier but
with greater consistency in sound quality - makes even more of an impact.
That is not only because of the quality of the National Symphony Orchestra
– only, at that point, less than a decade old but still sounding even
more accomplished than their older-established Cincinnati counterparts
– but also because of the artistry and technical skill of their founder-conductor
Hans Kindler. In his hands the first movement opens most strikingly
in an atmosphere of utter bleakness strongly reminiscent of the music
that Tchaikovsky was to write nearly thirty years later for the Pathétique
symphony. Kindler’s introduction to the Polish is quite
unlike that of any other account I’ve heard, for, while Tchaikovsky
may have specified tempo di Marcia funebre, here the music seems
to convey a feeling not just of a funeral in the world of the living
but of death itself. Within just a couple of minutes the conductor’s
acute ear for dynamics ensures that the often overlooked pizzicato
strings make their full and proper impact at 00:58-01:46. The succeeding
allegro brillante is incisive yet firmly controlled, avoiding
the excesses – tremendously exciting though they certainly were – of
The alla tedesca second movement is taken in quite a sprightly
fashion, with the violins at 00:42-00:52 displaying something of a distinctive
swing rather than the yearning quality that we usually encounter. Kindler’s
account of the third movement is possibly the most convincing that I
have ever heard: after an opening (00:00-01:32) that is less self-consciously
atmospheric than those of many other conductors, he launches into a
passionate and most beautifully played andante elegiaco – just
listen to the violins at 4:29-6:21.
It’s worth pointing out that Tchaikovsky was working on the Polish
at roughly the same time as Swan Lake and, as in all the
best accounts of the third symphony, Kindler’s brings out the balletic
qualities of its fourth movement scherzo. Even a somewhat awkwardly
managed cut at 3:18 wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm. Although
the finale demonstrates the conductor’s predilection for strings over
brass – he himself was a renowned cellist - it is a well delivered account
that brings this impressive performance to its end.
I suspect that recordings of this vintage are never going to be mainstream
recommendations. Nonetheless, this disc is to be welcomed as bringing
two important performances back into the public eye and anyone with
a particular interest in Tchaikovsky should certainly make its acquaintance.
and a further perspective from Rob Barnett:-
These are historical mono recordings that have been nicely cleaned up
by Guild. The disc allows us to hear again from the USA’s second line
orchestras in lower key Tchaikovsky. The sessions, which took place
within about twelve months before Pearl Harbour, predate the first Soviet
recordings of these works which are from the 1950s: USSRSO/Konstantin
Ivanov on Melodiya and as far as I am aware never reissued.
Goossens’ approach in No. 2 is finely graduated and calculated yet is
not lacking in spontaneity and spring. Try the start of the second movement
for his spry and lilted attention to rhythms. The way he forms Tchaikovsky's
'sentences’ is clear and there's a great sense of depth, breadth and
a relentless grip that never becomes frenetic. On this showing I rather
wish that Goossens had also recorded the Glazunov symphonies. The finale
seems to speak of Imperial Russia in much the same way that the finale
of Glazunov 8 does: a real sleet-storm of notes and all captured in
a nice hall resonance. The Cincinnati Symphony of those times might
not have been a luxury item but neither were they a hick outfit.
Kindler and the NSO in the Third Symphony – here in five tracks – were
recorded a year before the Goossens set. I found the sound here not
as natural and open as it is for the Goossens. It has a tendency toward
parchment and desiccation which the listener's ear soon corrects’.
The first movement is all pomp and circumstance, the second has a balletic
mirliton’ quality while the third radiates an Elgarian warmth
and the fourth has a nicely measured gait. The fourth recalls a typical
Glazunov scherzo. The heat is turned up for the finale which balances
ceremonious grandeur with fugal fustian. In the final pages any dust
is blown to the four winds by tempestuous strings. There’s some virtuoso
Thanks again to that doyen among collectors – Edward Johnson – who generously
provided the original material from which these recordings were taken.
These are from LP transfers rather than the initial 78s.
I should also thank the author of the fascinating notes, Robert Matthew-Walker.
He is one of the finest practitioners of the classical music essayist’s
art. This reviewer owes much to him. He is always a nutritious read.
His art shows through time after time as in his work for various CDs
of music by Delius,
Coke and Andreae.
These are historical recordings but are enjoyable in themselves if you
bear in mind their seventy-plus vintage.
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