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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1927-1930
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture (1880) [18:41]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877) [40:11]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [44:18]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64: movements 2 and 3 only (1888) [20:21]
Serenade for Strings in C Major: Waltz Op. 48 (1880) [3:57]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
rec. 1927-30, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC511 [60:01 + 68:38]

Mengelberg first conducted Tchaikovsky’s music a couple of years after the composer’s death and he was known to be a romanticist par excellence by the time that Columbia enlisted him to make these recordings in the years 1927-30. As noted by Mark Obert-Thorn, Mengelberg had earlier recorded two cut movements from the Pathétique in New York for Victor as well as the Waltz from the Serenade for Strings. However, in London Albert Coates set down a complete late acoustic set of the Fifth so that the time was right in May 1928 for Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw forces to make their electric version.

What is so memorable about the corpus of recordings in this twofer is the sheer visceral intensity of the playing. Its romanticism is turbo-charged, its impulse toward momentum astonishing. Romeo and Juliet’s narrative is graphically delineated, the longing and surging characterised with indelible flair but the linearity of the music-making, for all that Mengelberg’s rubato ebbs and flows, survives intact. Indeed, it puts most subsequent recordings in the shade, were it not for the 1930 sonics. Fortunately, all the recordings were made in situ in the Concertgebouw itself.

Just under a year earlier the Fourth Symphony had been recorded. Whether in the sonorous orchestral breath of the opening, in the vivid expression of the slow movement or the strings’ unanimity in the Pizzicato ostinato, this is another memorable reading. It’s made all the more so in the finale where his romanticist credentials are at high water mark. It was quite common in acoustic days to record isolated symphonic movements, almost invariably abridged, but the practice was very much less common in June 1927 when Mengelberg recorded, complete, the two inner movements of the Fifth. Recorded again by Columbia these movements were only issued by French Odeon and are uncommon. Eleven months later he recorded the whole symphony and whilst there are few real differences interpretatively, it’s valuable to have the rare 1927 torso here, alongside the full remake.

Here in the Fifth Mengelberg’s phrasing, allied to the orchestra’s luminous breath of tone, is once again placed at the service of music-making of huge temperament that support the music’s devastating candour and vision. Mengelberg, like a number of his contemporaries and, indeed, successors, was not above some editorializing here and there – scissors have been exercised in the finale – but the resultant performance is a permanent monument to his recreative artistry. And though he and the orchestra only recorded the Waltz from the Serenade for Strings at the same sessions that produced the Fifth, one only has to listen to the teasing, flirtatious rubati and the avid portamenti to recognise that one is experiencing a master-class in personalised characterisation.

Though they’ve been reissued before, these recordings belong in any historic collection of the Tchaikovsky symphonies on disc. The excellent transfers set the seal on a most distinguished release.

Jonathan Woolf



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