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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 3 [44:03]
Symphony No. 4 [39:42]
Symphony No. 6 [45:50]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, March (No. 4), June (No. 6) & December (No. 3) 2015
ONYX 4162 [59:55 + 58:09]

The first volume of Vasily Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky cycle drew accolades across the board when it appeared last year. “Bring on Volume Two!”, I said in these pages (review). Now it arrives and, if it’s not quite on the same level of inspiration as the first set, it’s still very good indeed, and definitely worth hearing.

For me, the set’s biggest Achilles eel is the finale of the Fourth Symphony, which is far too fast and scarcely even draws breath. I’m all in favour of getting adrenaline flowing in this movement, and Mravinsky shows better than most how to do this while maintaining accuracy. Petrenko fees like he’s trying to break a speed record, however, and, excellent as his players are for him, he dissipates the dramatic line in the fury. That’s a shame, because the rest of the symphony is very good. The opening fanfares are upbeat, staccato, propulsive, attention-grabbing. There is then a strangely alluring silkiness to the violins’ playing of the first theme, stealing in pianissimo and building up momentum, and maintaining something almost balletic about it throughout, with an uncommonly lovely sense of legato. There is something silky, almost feline about the clarinet line that introduces the second subject, and the strings’ response to it is utterly persuasive. The dynamics are beautifully shaded, too. The development cooks up a storm and the coda is marvellously dramatic, the full orchestra swelling and subsiding against the violins’ theme with the vigour and colour of an ocean. The Andantino moves fairly quickly, with beautiful, molten string tone, particularly in central section, and the scherzo rollicks, bouncing strings, winds and brass off one another in their individual sections.

The Pathétique begins in the primordial sludge, the bassoon barely emerging from the gloom, so overwhelming is the darkness.  The violins, too, are on the soft, slightly shy side for the first theme, which nevertheless sounds incisive. The great second theme is really remarkable, though.  It properly pulses with emotion, the strings surging through it, be they with or without mutes, and Petrenko shapes it so that it sounds like a proper love theme (which won’t be to everyone’s taste).  I was surprised he didn’t make a bit more of the drama of the development section, though.  Elsewhere in this symphony cycle, Petrenko has shown that he is a born dramatist, and I thought that in his hands the movement’s central section would sound like a real cauldron.  It’s played very well, and it’s typically incisive in both its articulation and its shape, but I’d expected something white hot, where it actually ended up glowing moderately red.  The second movement moves quickly, and there’s nothing wrong with that, though it might benefit from a bit more space for contemplating the view. The chattering bustle of the march is effective, and when it reaches full steam the effect is thrilling.  The finale then follows almost attacca, which manages to avoid sounding too abrupt, and the strings sound fantastic here, throbbing sensationally through the major key second theme, heartbreaking in its minor key transformation.  With great discipline, Petrenko refuses to speed up for the climax, keeping his tempo steady throughout, which has the effect of tightening the tension even further, winding up the screw to its almost unbearable release.  It’s the opposite of what he does in the final of the Fourth ymphony, and it’s all the more powerful for being so unexpected.

In fact it’s the third ymphony which is the most consistent success on the set. It opens with a steady, purposeful tread, pregnant with expectation, revealing Petrenko’s skill as a storyteller. The main subject is lithe and responsive but also propulsive and forward-moving, unlike the second subject which is happy to take its time, with a lovely oboe solo. The development is full of action, and there is a lovely sense of occasion to the return of first subject, with bright brass and well-caught drums. There is then a lovely lilt to the Alla Tedesca second movement, with a sense that this is a lop-sided waltz which is cut from similar cloth to the Pathétique’s. The solo horn and bassoon sound properly elegiac in the third movement, and the whole movement has a nostalgic melancholy to it that is very characterful.  The violins play their theme magnificently, too, full of yearning and promise, like the sun breaking temporarily through the clouds. The fourth movement has a touch of Mendelssohnian fairy dust to it, though I also loved the trombones’ interjection; and the Polonaise finale is brilliant, the main theme played with swagger and fire, but also sounding impressively precise, with a coda that blazes brilliantly. It's one of the most convincing performances of this problematic symphony that I've heard in a very long time, and is worth hearing regardless of whether you want the other symphonies. It’s only a shame that they had to split it over two CDs, but it’s hard to see how that could have been avoided.

So if I sound a little lukewarm in places then it’s really only because my expectations were raised so high by the first volume. No. 4 and No. 6 have great things about them, and No. 3 gets one of the finest performances out there. Taking both volumes together, they don’t quite match up to the finest sets such as Pletnev’s second cycle, and if you’re looking for a budget recording then Jansons’ classic Oslo set is more consistently fine. However, it’s to Petrenko’s credit that, to my ears, the symphonies that get the most remarkable readings are the two least popular: No. 1 and No. 3. Definitely worth hearing, and at less than mid-price you can probably afford it.

Simon Thompson



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