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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36 (1877-78) [41:43]
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orch. Maurice Ravel, 1922) [32:26]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Live, 29 October-1 November 2017 (Symphony); 3 June 2018 (Pictures), Barbican Centre, London, UK
LSO SACD LSO0810 [74:18]

This Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony features moderate to slightly brisk tempos throughout and is generally quite spirited. But it begins inauspiciously: the first statement of the fate theme is restrained, lacking thrust somewhat, but as the French horns play the closing descending notes, joined by trombones, leading to further iterations with other brass and winds, the music suddenly takes wing, adopting a more assertive, trenchant manner. The main theme is then phrased by conductor Noseda to yield a sense of foreboding, of tension, and most importantly, a feeling that emotions are fragile, unpredictable. He achieves this tone of uncertainty with sparing but subtle use of rubato and by deftly manipulating dynamics and accenting. The alternate theme is appropriately brighter and playful, and very well played.

The development section begins in a somewhat subdued manner too, the mood eerily restrained. But as the music reaches the heart of this dramatic passage—strings yearning and swelling and seething in apparent frustration—it gains in urgency and drama, the fate theme then coming on with power and finally the main theme striking out with anger and desperation. The remainder of the movement goes very well, thus capping off a well shaped and excellently played account of the opening panel.

The performance of the second movement is suave and lyrically warm, though some of the woodwind playing accompanying the main theme on its return in the latter half sounds overly prominent and a bit mechanical. Still, overall the playing is fine and Noseda’s phrasing of this movement is quite convincing. The pizzicato-dominated Scherzo is splendidly played and shaped: the strings proceed with breathless pacing, demonstrating utterly their versatility with many gradations in dynamics, imparting a sense the music is by turns scurrying, bouncing, fading, dancing, but always having fun. In the Trio the sense of joy and playfulness continues with especially excellent playing from the woodwinds.

The finale takes off in a celebratory manner, the brass not billowing bombast, as happens in some performances, but evoking festivity and cheer. The return of the fate theme later on is dramatic and powerful, and the ending brims with energy and joy. There is much impressive competition on record in this symphony from Karajan/DG, Ormandy/RCA, Maazel/CBS and many others. This rendition by Noseda and the LSO is quite good overall, if not among the very best. If this were your only version of this great symphony, it would serve you well unless you, like me, reflexively seek out worthy alternatives in favourite works.

A performance with a somewhat more successful result is that of the coupling here, Pictures at an Exhibition. From the very opening this account seizes your attention: the principal trumpet phrases the stately Promenade theme with a perfectly fitting legato and the music exudes a burnished glow as it confidently moves ahead. The ensuing Gnomus is appropriately menacing and dark, while The Old Castle is hauntingly atmospheric in its slightly expansive tempo. Here one must give high praise to the LSO woodwinds. Tuileries, taken quite briskly, is delightfully playful as it should be and Bydlo takes on a more profound than usual manner in its threatening, inexorable tread. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is another delight in its frolicsome scampering, while witty contrasts are deftly realized in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. The Marketplace at Limoges is rambunctious and colourful, and Catacombs austere and weighty. The remaining Pictures are also very effectively rendered, The Great Gate of Kiev the most imposing of them in its regal gait and bombast-free grandeur.

As with the Tchaikovsky Fourth, there are countless recordings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures, including fine efforts by Ormandy/RCA, Abbado/DG (also with the LSO) and a sort of dark horse in the race, Zdenek Macal/Delos with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. But this version from Noseda and the LSO can stand proudly with them. The sound reproduction on this SACD is vivid and well balanced and the audience is quiet in both performances. In summation then, the verdict is - a very good Tchaikovsky Fourth and an outstanding Pictures.

Robert Cummings

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