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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (‘Little Russian’) [32:41]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 (‘Polish’) [44:22]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 7 December, 2016 (2) & 5 March, 2016 (3), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
LPO LPO0109 [77:03]

These performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra were originally released on the ensemble’s in-house label, LPO, in 2017 as part of a seven-CD set of the complete symphonies (including Manfred) and the Serenade for Strings. All the performances were taken from live concerts presented from 2004 through 2016. These two symphonies, both from 2016, were the last to be recorded and thus completed the project. Several of the performances in the set received prestigious awards and citations and, if I can judge from the two offered here, it’s easy to see why they achieved such accolades.

The Tchaikovsky Second and Third Symphonies are generally light in mood, not divulging the expressive depth and sense of struggle with fate of their later siblings. With the Fourth Symphony Tchaikovsky made a giant leap forward, much the way Beethoven did with the Eroica, the Russian composer taking on a grander, more personal and more profound manner of expression. Form became freer though, subservient to the struggles and ideas he was attempting to convey. The last three numbered symphonies then are deeper and more complex, but the first three, often unfairly dismissed as being too straightforward in their expressive manner and too emotionally superficial, are solidly crafted works with hardly a moment of note-spinning, and feature many attractive tunes and brilliant, colorful orchestration.

One realizes these two symphonies are especially fine works when heard in performances of this caliber. There are two reasons for the success here: firstly, Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO’s principal conductor since the 2007-08 season, captures the essence of both works, not attempting to link them to their later, darker and fate-obsessed siblings by playing down their lightness and happier demeanor; and secondly, the LPO plays with uncommon spirit, commitment and accuracy, performing with a genuinely idiomatic grasp on Tchaikovsky’s expressive persona. Tempos are generally a bit on the brisk side, but always sound natural, fitting the emotional ebb and flow of the music. Rhythms are perky and never rigid, lyrical music is warm and flowing, and the lighter, livelier music often effervesces delightfully.

The Little Russian Symphony derives its nickname from the use of three Ukrainian folk tunes in the work—Ukraine was then often referred to as Little Russia. In the subdued opening of the Symphony the horn and bassoon solos of a version of the folk song Down By Mother Volga are well played and as the mood begins to roil, the strings deftly slither and leap, prodding the music toward agitation. When the Allegro vivo section is presented the playing by the orchestra collectively brims with energy and color, and then later everything crackles with spirited drive in the urgent development section. The second movement march has just the right jaunty and frolicsome character, and the ensuing Scherzo is played and interpreted convincingly, the strings brimming with energy and playfulness, their deftly chosen accents imparting a resilient, somewhat bouncy forward thrust. The finale begins appropriately with a chipper, triumphant character and then turns to a confident, sort of suave manner for the alternate theme. But the sense of celebration comes on and rarely ever leaves for the remainder of the movement. A fine performance!

Cast in five movements, the Third Symphony is twelve minutes longer here than the Second, but more importantly, clearly exhibits a more epic nature, as it should. Despite beginning with a funeral march, it is a mostly optimistic and joyful work, but is also rather stately, especially in the first movement. The somber introduction is atmospheric and well conceived and executed here, and then the exposition begins with plenty of energy and a sense of bliss. The lyrical oboe theme that follows is delightfully rendered, and throughout the entirety of the opening panel Jurowski and company capture the music’s expressive soul with playing that conveys all the color, joy, and brilliance the composer invested in it.

The second movement waltz has a pleasing nonchalance here in the playing by the solo flute and clarinet, but it also conveys a bit of exoticism, appropriately so. The Trio exhibits a sort of quiet energy, the playing subtle and a perfect fit for the music’s subdued character. The warmth and fluency expressed by the orchestra in the ensuing Andante elegiaco is most striking here in this, the most serious, yet lovely of the symphony’s five movements. In the Scherzo the strings play with a silken finesse, while clarinet, oboe and flute swirl and chirp, all to deftly summon a gossamer and quite infectious fairytale-like world. Exchanges between strings and woodwinds are playful and subtly performed. The finale features rhythms related to the polonaise, a musical form associated with Poland—hence the otherwise inappropriate nickname of the symphony. Jurowski and the LPO capture the sometimes complex thematic and rhythmic aspects of the music with great skill and overall the movement comes across with vitality and a sense of grandeur in the triumphant ending.

The sound reproduction in both works is highly detailed and well balanced, the audiences remaining remarkably quiet and not intruding on the performances. As for the competition, Svetlanov on Melodiya (and other labels) is very idiomatic, while Karajan on DG offers masterly interpretations and draws excellent playing from his orchestra. There are many other fine recordings of these two works, especially from complete sets of the symphonies, but the performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski are outstanding in both conception and execution, and I can’t say I’ve heard better accounts of either symphony from the plentiful competition. Here’s a case where live performances clearly stand with the best studio efforts.

Robert Cummings

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