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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Symphony
No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78) [41:45] Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Pictures
at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel) [32:33]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 2017/2018, Barbican, London, UK LSO LIVE SACD LSO0810 [74:18]
This coupling has appeared before, most notably in 2006 by Tugan Sokhiev and Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (Na´ve). If the same programme appeals, that one should do nicely. There are so many recordings of these works, which are contemporaneous by the two greatest nineteenth-century Russian composers, that one’s choice is otherwise impossibly broad.
Gianandrea Noseda is not the first well-known Italian conductor to take on these pieces. For Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony Daniele Gatti conducts a terrific performance by the Royal Philharmonic on Harmonia Mundi. For Pictures at an Exhibition both Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI) and Claudio Abbado with the London Symphony (DG) leave little to be desired. How does Noseda’s stack up against these and other illustrious versions?
First of all, the London Symphony plays very well and the recorded sound is better than I expected from the Barbican Centre, which may appear like damning with faint praise. It is certainly better than on some of Gergiev’s recordings there. Noseda’s is a good, middle-of-the road account of the Tchaikovsky that is stronger on lyricism than drama. The first movement, in particular, can seem rather tepid when compared with Gatti or Oslo Philharmonic/Jansons (Chandos), to say nothing of the sheer excitement of the classic Leningrad Philharmonic/Mravinsky (DG) or Vasily Petrenko’s with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Onyx). All of these as a whole have more to offer the listener than this new account. It’s not a matter of timing, either, since Mravinsky and Noseda time out about roughly the same in this movement (18:46 vs. 18:25). Noseda can seem a bit plodding at times with little of the inflection that Mravinsky has in spades. It’s true that the Leningrad’s brass sounds rawer than what is customary now, but that is part and parcel of the Russian orchestra’s style of that vintage. Noseda improves in the remaining movements and lets the orchestra off the leash in the finale. However, it’s really not enough to recommend this account when there is so much competition.
Pictures at an Exhibition, on the other hand, provides a great deal more interest. Except for the first “picture,” Gomus, which Noseda distorts with his use of rubato, the work proceeds in fairly straightforward fashion. The Promenades are treated smoothly and are beautifully played. The saxophone solo in Il vecchio castello is eloquent with only a little vibrato. Tuilleries is very fast and light, while Bydlo with an excellent tubist is slow but does not drag. Muti in his recording is quite a bit faster in this movement, performing it at a good, walking tempo. Abbado’s, on the other hand, tends to plod and his soloist sounds to me more like a trombone than a tuba. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Noseda’s account is delightful with really good characterization. The balance between muted trumpet and strings in Samuel Goldberg and
Schmu le is nearly ideal and the movement leaves a powerful impression. Limoges is slightly slower than either Muti or Abbado, but is light and has better articulation. Catacombs and Sepulchrum Romanum are fine, but the tracking is off, with the former beginning near the end of Limoges (track 15, rather than the start of track 16). The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, Baba-Yaga begins with a powerful timpani whack and has an impressive bass drum. Nonetheless, Muti’s overall is more exciting and crisper and quite a contrast with Abbado’s much heavier and slower account.
Noseda starts the Great Gate of Kiev in a more subdued manner than the others, but this gives him room to build the movement to its grand climax. I prefer Muti’s and Abbado’s bells, however, which are lower pitched than the ones used here. The ending of this movement is really grandiose and the bass drum thuds on the off-beats really make a cannon-like impact.
Thus, there is much to appreciate in this new account as there is in the others with which I have compared it. The question is, is this worth adding to one’s collection for half a disc? It would seem that Sokhiev is a better choice if you wish to have both works on a single programme.
LSO Live provides a glossy booklet with very good notes by Andrew Huth on Tchaikovsky and Andrew Stewart on Mussorgsky, as well as a full listing of the orchestra members and notes on the conductor and the orchestra. There are so many options from which to choose for these works that the primary attraction of this disc would seem to be the current state of the London Symphony and for those following the career of its principal guest conductor, Gianandrea Noseda.