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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.1 in g minor ‘Winter Dreams’, Op.13 [41:05]
Symphony No.2 in c minor ‘Little Russian’, Op.17 [33:01]
Symphony No.5 in e minor, Op.64 [43:51]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 15-16 November 2014 (No.5), 23-24 November 2014 (No.1), 15 May 2015 (No.2). DDD
ONYX 4150 [74:06 + 43:51]

Ever since Naxos released Vasily Petrenko’s recording of the Manfred Symphony – reviewreview – we have been awaiting a complete cycle. In the event that has come not from Naxos but from Onyx and it has been well worth the wait. In the interim, the RLPO’s own label released a download-only recording of the Fifth: Recording of the Month – review. (No longer available.)

In a sense benchmarks are irrelevant since the performances are all first-rate and, apart from complete sets, I don’t think any rival recording contains exactly this coupling. Among complete sets I like the one Mariss Jansons recorded: not just of Nos. 1-6 but Manfred and Capriccio Italien with the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN10392, 6 CDs – Download News 2013/1). His versions of Nos. 4, 5 and 6 understandably feature among the many choices for these symphonies in MWI Recommends but his No.1 and No.2 are also among the best.

One reason why I like both the Jansons set of recordings and the new Petrenko album is that the early symphonies are given their due weight: they may not be in the same exalted league as Nos. 4-6 but they are much more than mere preludes to the swelling scene.

Petrenko takes the first and second movements of No.1 fast – in each he’s almost a minute faster than Jansons. As a result the first movement sounds full of vitality yet still evocative of ‘winter daydreams (more accurately reveries) on a journey’ and the second moves at a pace without losing sight of the subtitle ‘in the land of gloom and mists’.

In No.2 the opening movement again goes at a fast pace once we move from the andante sostenuto to the allegro vivo, but this time the second movement is noticeably slower than Jansons’. I’m very happy with the opening movement, which never sounds unduly hectic, though slightly faster even than Mikhail Pletnev (Pentatone: Recording of the Month – review of complete set). Incidentally, those who like to compare original and final versions will find that Pletnev includes the original, longer 1872 first movement, both on the complete set and on the single-CD release.

The second movement is marked andantino marziale, quasi moderato, and I did wonder if Petrenko quite managed the martial aspect of the music: at times I would have preferred him to march a little faster. I was disappointed with Pletnev’s Pentatone Fifth, which I thought never came fully to life – Download Roundup June 2011/2 – but I thought his account of No.2/ii, a whole minute faster than Petrenko and slightly faster than Jansons, more convincing. I listened to the streamed version of the Pletnev from Qobuz where it can be downloaded in 16- or 24-bit sound. It’s also available, slightly less expensively, especially for US$ purchasers, from eclassical.com, again in 16- and 24-bit.

Of the versions which I know, only Claudio Abbado with the New Philharmonia comes close to a tempo as slow as Petrenko’s on a CD coupling Nos. 2 and 4 which has fallen undeservedly to the deletions axe and is now download only (DG 4295272) or part of a 39-CD set.

When it comes to No.5, much as I like Jansons, my benchmark has to be Evgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Phil on a 2-CD DG set of incandescent performances of Nos. 4-6 (4475911). Though they take longer than most for the first movement, the result is explosive. Only George Szell, of the versions I know, is a few seconds slower and his version, too, is extremely powerful if you don’t like the slightly wobbly Russian wind and brass. (Sony 82876787442, download only: still one of the versions that I turn to, on an earlier CBS Odyssey CD.)

Petrenko and his team may not be quite in the same league as Mravinsky and Szell, but this is likely to become one of my ‘go-to’ versions of the symphony, without any excesses or gimmicks. It’s a much stronger recommendation than Pletnev’s Pentatone Fifth to which I’ve referred above. After a quiet start to the finale, at a slightly slower overall tempo than Mravinsky or Jansons and slightly faster than Szell or Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (with the BBCSO, coupled with Janáček Taras Bulba, ICA ICAC5116 – Download News 2013/8) they bring the house down.

Part of the success of these recordings lies in the way in which the Liverpool Phil do their conductor proud. I always thought them capable of challenging the best but I must admit to some bias: I got to know much of the standard repertoire from their regular visits to my home town of Blackburn where I used to hear them free in return for acting as an usher or programme seller.

I listened to these recordings as an inexpensive mp3 download from emusic.com. I’m pleased that they have decided to offer all their recent downloads and have refurbished much of the older material at the full 320 kb/s. That’s good enough to report that the recording sounds fine, but the world has moved on and we should be able to expect lossless sound these days, together with the booklets, still universally absent from emusic.com. Thankfully the booklet is available from Onyx.

Individually there may be slightly stronger recommendations for each of these symphonies but taken as a whole I greatly enjoyed the new 2-CD set, which I considered as a serious candidate for Recording of the Month. On reflection, it was perhaps mean of me not to give the accolade.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Ian Lace

 

 




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