Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-8) [39:16]
Suite No. 4 in G, Op. 61 (Mozartiana) (1887) [24:11]
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
recording data not given
DSOLIVE DSOLive003 [63:27]

Years ago, near the start of my life of crime as a music reviewer, I was assigned a Dallas Symphony disc that left me in despair. It's not that it was so bad, but, on first listening, it all seemed neutral to the point of blankness, leaving me with nothing to write about. Fortunately for me, a second listening made matters clearer: I was hearing very clean reproduction of a somewhat underpowered orchestra. The recording in question was the Mahler Fifth on Dorian DOR 90193, should you care to check it out for yourself.

Now, two decades later, here's more or less the same orchestra in another big Romantic symphony, and, alas, things haven't changed much. The strings sound particularly reticent below forte, unwilling or unable to project their tone with any brightness, as in both of the first movement's theme groups. In the Andantino, the violins' entry under the bassoon at 7:39 is nearly inaudible; the pizzicato sections of the Scherzo don't fade, but evanesce. The winds, too, have their bashful moments: the horns at the start are firm and round, but dull; the clarinet is pleasingly insinuating in the second group, but the flute and oboe pickups are nearly lost. Only when the heavy brass are in play does the music come to brilliant life, even if the trumpets do push some of the triplet patterns in the first movement.

Jaap van Zweden certainly gets the orchestra to play with more character, if not with more tonal body, than did Andrew Litton, the conductor on the Dorian recording, and I appreciated his forthright tempos, keeping the first movement's tutti recap in time - no portentous broadening - and moving the coda with drive and point. The Scherzo is nicely mobile. But, given his penchant for unmarked dynamic pullbacks - at 10:05 and 10:14 of the first movement, for example, which should be mezzoforte at least - I wonder whether he further encouraged the finicky soft playing. In the Finale - where van Zweden just lets everyone play - the entire passage from the brass stretti through the finish is exciting, but by then it's too late.

Mozartiana is an imaginative makeweight - a nice change from the usual suspects - and the conductor, in his more relaxed mode, draws another characterful performance. The Gigue is playful and a bit "galumphy," the Menuet solemn and dignified. The fourteen-minute variation Finale, with Andres Cardenes a vibrant soloist, has a nice arc, constituting a miniature symphony in itself. The surprise is that the orchestra sounds altogether more vivid here. Even the strings play out more in the louder passages, though they're prosaic rather than shimmering in the Preghiera, and their sound lacks a firm core in the Finale's theme. The woodwinds are not always dead in tune - also a problem on that older release - but the clarinet is liquid and virtuosic. It does sound as if the microphones were closer to the players, but I suspect the writing as a whole simply suits them better, or strains them less.

Van Zweden's Netherlands Radio recordings, some of which I've reviewed here, showcase his music-making better than this. While I'm glad the Dallas Symphony, like so many other orchestras, has launched its own recording program, I'd really have appreciated better documentation. Not only are recording dates and venues not provided, but I couldn't find an order number for the disc anywhere -- not on the disc itself, on the packaging, or in the booklet! The only place to find the catalogue number was on the web.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.

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