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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor Winter Dreams (1866, rev. 1874) [41.04]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Little Russian (1872, rev. 1879-80) [32.58]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor (1888) [43.53]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 15-16 November 2014 (5), 23-24 November 2014 (1), 15 May 2015 (2)
ONYX 4150 [74.08 + 43.53]

This is an odd collection, but interesting. It contrasts the unfamiliar early Tchaikovsky symphonist with the mature. It is asserted that combined Prom performances of Symphonies 1 and 2 have amounted to just 18 whereas there have been nearly 100 of No. 5 as at August 2016. I vaguely remember listening to Winter Daydreams (as I knew it then) and Little Russian all of half a century ago but recall more clearly Sir Adrian Boult’s 1956 Decca recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 Polish (review). I was more enthusiastic about the latter. Whether that can be put down to Decca engineering or Beulah tinkering I am unsure.

The Winter Dreams First Symphony was written when Tchaikovsky was 26 and already Professor of Music Theory at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory. Its conception and development was a struggle. There were many revisions — often drastic — until the final version was heard nine years after its premiere. Its opening movement is expressive; snowfall may be imagined. An affecting theme in B minor follows. Contrastingly, there is also the forthright and emphatic Tchaikovsky and Petrenko drives this forward forcefully. The Adagio cantabile second movement is dreamily languid and fairy-tale like – here is Tchaikovsky in ballet mode. The scherzo is quicksilver and Mendelssohnian with an enchanting waltz as its trio. The Finale is full of youthful bombast and vigour. Petrenko holds nothing back.

The Little Russian Second Symphony again caused Tchaikovsky trouble with re-writes despite its very positive premiere reception. A major reason for its success was the approval it met with from ‘The Five’ Russian Nationalist composers led by Balakirev; Tchaikovsky used much folk-music in the work. The opening movement is exciting with those familiar rapid staccato clusters immediately followed by legato figures. There is lyricism and drama and Petrenko lets rip through its thrills. The second movement begins with a lugubrious march which gradually loosens up to become a little more sprightly, Tchaikovsky using a wedding march from his abandoned opera Undine. The Scherzo and the Finale follow the patterns and character of the First Symphony. The heroic nature of this Finale anticipates the 1812 of 1880 which lay some eight years ahead. Again Petrenko is no slouch, all guns blaze away.

So to the much more familiar music of the Fifth Symphony; I was expecting fireworks and a superior expressive reading. For me any performance rises or falls on the quality of the second movement – Andante marziale – and especially the solo horn at the beginning. Here Petrenko’s soloist articulates all the notes reasonably but there is a lack of committed expressiveness. I suppose I am prejudiced in favour of the never to be forgotten soulful playing of Dennis Brain on the old Karajan 1952-53 Columbia recording of this Symphony (review). Interesting to note that Dennis Brain and Karajan bonded well through their mutual interest in, and vast knowledge, of fast cars. The memorable march of this movement, used as a signature tune, if I am not mistaken in the 1940s American documentary series The March of Time, crackles in its thrilling reprise. Petrenko’s waltz-based Scherzo third movement is not short of charm and vivacity. Too much I think has been made of Tchaikovsky’s melancholia and the overwhelming sadness of his music. So what! The vast majority of music has a seam of melancholy, much deeply so. Fortunately Petrenko’s view of the opening movement is one that is more fist-shaking against a malevolent fate rather than unrelenting self-pity. His Finale is equally assertive and positive – in fact it is a white knuckle ride.

Ian Lace



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