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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

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 movement.

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 Goossens’s approach.

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.  

Rob Maynard

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 playing here.

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.

Rob Barnett

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