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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1878) [41:51]
rec. April 2015, Stormen Concert Hall, Bodø, Norway
Symphony No 6 in B minor, ‘Pathétique’, Op 74 [41:39]
rec. February 2016, Stormen Concert Hall, Bodø, Norway
Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64 [44:01]
rec. January/February 2012, Harstad Kulturhus, Norway
Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra (Nordnorsk Symfoniorkester)/Christian Lindberg
BIS BIS-2178 SACD [83:29 + 44:01]

The Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra was founded as recently as 2009 and Christian Lindberg was appointed its first principal conductor within a few months of the orchestra’s formation. Trying to find out a bit more about them I found some information on the website of the Mariinsky Theatre where the orchestra is described thus: “a project orchestra with musicians from the Bodø Sinfonietta and the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra as its core members, supplemented by the Norwegian Army Band North and the Landsdelsmusikerne of North Norway. Today it is the largest and most active cultural institution in the northern regions of Norway.” On the evidence of this pair of discs the orchestra has become a highly accomplished ensemble in just a few years.

BIS here gather as a package the orchestra’s recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies. The Fourth and Fifth have been previously released and were greeted with enthusiasm by various colleagues of mine. There are links to their appraisals at the end of this review. As they’ve covered the Fourth and Fifth symphonies in some detail I’ll spend a little more time on the Sixth. I believe the recording of the Pathétique is new to the catalogue. The previous incarnation of the Fifth Symphony also included the suite from Swan Lake. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you: the Fourth and Sixth symphonies really are contained on one SACD with an astonishing playing time of 83:29, which is quite the longest I’ve ever seen. I detected no loss of quality despite the extended duration.

These are not run-of-the-mill performances of repertoire staples. In a note in the booklet Christian Lindberg explains that he has been “obsessed” by the Tchaikovsky symphonies since childhood. He goes on to say that the different tempi adopted by various conductors puzzled him. When he came to study the scores for himself he discovered, to his surprise, that the composer had been scrupulous in his metronome indications which were often ignored by conductors and/or modified by the use of rubato. In these performances he has stayed close to the metronome markings in the scores. The results are stimulating.

The Fourth begins with an arresting brass fanfare. The ensuing Moderato con anima is nicely mobile. The rhythms are sharply defined and there’s plenty of life in the music. This is an encouraging start. The qualities of the orchestra are beginning to become apparent. The strings have a slightly wiry sound. I don’t mean that in a negative sense; the sound is not plush and that’s of a piece with Lindberg’s essentially lithe approach. The woodwind are agile and characterful – they show their mettle in the second subject (from around 5:30). The brass section has plenty of power when called for but the players never overdo things. It’s also right to mention the timpani: the playing is incisive throughout the three symphonies and in this first movement of the Fourth I admire the way in which the engineers capture the very soft drum-strokes which occur in certain passages. These are clear and in ideal perspective. Given Lindberg’s determination to observe metronome markings I wasn’t surprised to find that near the end the egregious slowing down for a few bars that many conductors make is absent (17:17) Hooray! All in all this is a splendid account of the opening movement.

The principal oboe is very characterful at the start of the second movement. Lindberg’s interpretation has a delightful flow to it; there’s no exaggeration. By now it’s clear that what we’re getting in this account of the symphony is unmediated Tchaikovsky. That’s not to suggest, though, that the approach is in any way lacking in thought, insight or interest. At 8:36 I relished the tone of the bassoonist as the theme is played once more: this time the melody is not inflected in the way that the oboist did but that’s fine by me: this is a final glimpse of the theme rather than its first unveiling. The Scherzo gets a crisp, agile reading; it’s very likeable. Then it’s all aboard for the finale. Lindberg’s style is to bring out the festive side of the music. His speed is nowhere near as fast and furious as the classic Yevgeny Mravinsky recording (review) but though there’s much I admire about Mravinsky’s reading Lindberg’s slightly more measured way is preferable. The headlong adrenalin rush of Mravinsky should be reserved for a special treat. My overall view of Lindberg’s recording of the Fourth is that it’s a splendid affair. I found it very refreshing and enjoyed it very much.

In the Andante introduction to the first movement of the Fifth I liked the woody sound of the Arctic Philharmonic’s clarinet. Having made one comparison with the great Mravinsky I decided to retain him as my comparator. I have his stereo recordings of all three symphonies in DG’s CD release from many years ago rather than the Pristine Audio version that we recently reviewed. I noticed with interest that Mravinsky’s pacing of the Andante is not dissimilar to Lindberg’s but the Soviet maestro is much more inclined to use accents and dynamic contrasts for heightened effect. When the Allegro con anima is reached Lindberg is appreciably swifter; indeed, Mravinsky is almost trudging at first. I like the drive Lindberg brings to the music and repeated listening has made me think that while there’s no lack of symphonic weight Lindberg reminds you that this is music by a great ballet composer. He combines dramatic thrust and lightness in his interpretation.

The link with ballet is, if anything, more pronounced in the second movement. This is a fresh, engaging reading. The Valse is affectionate and graceful in this performance. Hereabouts there’s a great deal of agile and nicely inflected playing to admire, not least from the woodwinds. Lindberg makes the Andante maestoso introduction to the finale sound serious but not overblown: there’s good forward momentum. A comparison with Mravinsky was instructive. He seems a bit more rhetorical in the introduction, even though his pacing is similar. Once again, it’s accents and dynamics that do the work for Mravinsky. When the Allegro vivace arrives Mravinsky goes off like a bat out of hell. His stupendously drilled Leningrad Philharmonic ensure he gets away with it but I think Mravinsky overcooks things here. It’s all very exciting but the music is rushed off its feet and there’s no time for breath. Lindberg is steadier and judges the speed admirably. He’s able to give the music life and energy but also space. When Tchaikovsky increases the marking to Molto vivace Mravinsky doesn’t really have anywhere to go but Lindberg does. When the motto theme returns, at last in the major key (9:51), Lindberg gives the music a good, confident swing. Mravinsky gets to the same point at 8:33 and then there’s more swagger in his reading of the major-key section. Both conductors bring the symphony home with an exhilarating Presto.

Lindberg’s new recording of the Pathétique opens well. He’s not as overtly expressive as Mravinsky in the Adagio introduction but he’s still convincing. Once the pace picks up (around 1:30) the performance is mobile and very well sprung. . The yearning string melody (4:03) is done with feeling but I like also the forward momentum. Mravinsky introduces this melody in a very hushed fashion but soon his performance has become fervent. At the start of the Allegro vivo Lindberg is urgent and fiery. Mravinsky’s reading, however, is positively scalding: it’s wonderful to hear. In his hands the music leaps off the page; he takes it significantly faster than Lindberg. The Mravinsky performance has blistering intensity though the searing Leningrad trumpets may not be to all tastes. Lindberg doesn’t seek to deliver such a performance but he still produces an account that is dramatic and fiery.

The 5/4 waltz is delightfully done by the Arctic Philharmonic. It seems to me that there’s just the right amount of ‘give’ and flexibility in the rhythms. The melancholy trio is persuasively inflected but without any exaggeration. Mravinsky is excellent too at a slightly swifter basic tempo for the waltz. He makes more of a contrast, though, when he gets to the trio: he is slower than Lindberg and more sorrowful. He’s considerably more brisk than Lindberg in the third movement: the Leningraders show great discipline and their playing has enviable definition. However, while relishing Mravinsky’s brilliance I appreciate Lindberg’s steadier tread. Steadier he may be but his performance is crisp and nicely sprung. Furthermore, as the march enters its final pages I have the feeling that the Mravinsky reading, though very exciting, is rather driven. Lindberg intelligently steers a more middling course with less surface brilliance and thereby delivers a more consistently satisfying account.

Within days of conducting the first performance of the Pathétique Tchaikovsky was dead. Perhaps this has influenced a number of conductors who have sought to wring every last drop of emotion out of the symphony’s finale. So far as I’m aware, though, the composer had no valedictory thoughts when composing the music. Lindberg, I’m glad to say is not as grief-stricken at the start as some performances that I’ve heard – nor is Mravinsky. When the secondary theme is ushered in (2:09) Lindberg moves the music forward with no little purpose and with growing urgency. Mravinsky announces the theme in a very hushed manner but soon racks up the intensity. Lindberg’s main climax (from 5:32) is very powerful but Mravinsky makes these pages searing and his coda, which offers yet another example of his use of accents for expressive effect, suggests Shakespearian tragedy. Lindberg, by contrast, brings the symphony to a melancholy, dignified conclusion and that, I think, is consistent given that in his performance of the symphony as a whole he has resolutely refused to wear his heart on his sleeve.

If you insist on traditional high intensity in these works then you may not warm to Lindberg's performances. However, to pass them by would be a mistake. I’ve enjoyed these very much indeed, not least because of their freshness. Christian Lindberg isn’t here offering quirky, idiosyncratic performances that are different just for the sake of it. Rather, to coin a phrase he’s “gone back to basics” and in so doing he’s given us the opportunity to enjoy these masterpieces anew. His cause is aided at every turn by committed, accomplished playing from the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra. It may be a recently established ensemble but on this evidence it has a very bright future ahead of it. I’d like very much to hear more from this team. The early Tchaikovsky symphonies should be right up their street and then there’s always Manfred

BIS have presented these readings in excellent sound. I’m not equipped for surround sound so I auditioned these SACDs using the stereo option. The sound is clear, crisp and very well balanced. There’s an excellent dynamic range and, in short, these recordings do full justice to the quality of the performances.

If you think you know the Tchaikovsky symphonies well, as I did, listen to these recordings: you may well find your ears opened.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: 4: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month) ~ 5: Brian Reinhart ~ Dave Billinge



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