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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 [41:45]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [32:33]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, Barbican, London, October/November 2017 & June 2018
LSO Live SACD LSO0810 [74:18]

The rise of orchestra-own-brand recordings is one of the reasons to be cheerful in our modern age which seems to put so little value on recorded music. These labels are bucking the trend, and LSO Live is one of the more successful ones. However, they sometimes raise the question of who they are for: are these interpretations for the ages, or are they mostly mementos for those who were at the concert?

I think this one falls squarely into the latter category, because it’s perfectly fine but overall pretty vanilla. I’m a fan of Gianandrea Noseda, and he is, no doubt, a shot in the arm for the LSO but, after a very mediocre Shostakovich 8 (review), I haven’t been particularly impressed by their collaborations on disc so far. This Russian disc is better than that one, but much of it is perfectly fine without being particularly exciting.

Let’s start with the Tchaikovsky. There is lyricism in the slow movement, which builds up some decent momentum, and I enjoyed the fun feel of the Scherzo, particularly the woodwind skirling. The outer movements are a bit flat and unexciting, though. For one thing, the horn fanfares that open the work are unforgivably tame: this moment needs to pin you to the back of your seat, but here it just seems to begin without much, well, fanfare. The strings have a silky lilt to them in the first subject, which is very attractive in its own way, and there is a gloopy, slightly tipsy feel to second subject, but it doesn't reek of Russian fire. The finale is pretty workaday, too. The initial explosion is pretty good, but there isn’t really a sense of threat when the first movement’s fanfare returns, and the final pages don’t carry enough of a sense of euphoria: if anywhere in Tchaikovsky's music calls for that, it’s here.

Pictures generally goes the same way. There are some very fine individual moments, such as the lovely saxophone solo in The Old Castle, and a pleasingly yappy trumpet in Goldenberg and Schmüyle. Importantly, the various different colours of the Promenades come out very well, binding the performance together successfully. On the whole, though, it’s a little ordinary. Nobody would be scared of this Gnomus, and the Great Gate of Kiev doesn’t thrill the blood like it should. The brass of the Catacombs echo pleasingly, and at least Baba Yaga’s hut is pretty exciting, but that almost comes a bit too late.

So this disc is perfectly fine but, in the light of the competition for both of these works, is that really enough? Ultimately, you can’t get away from the Russians in these works. My recent favourite Pictures is Gergiev’s Mariinsky live recording (review), and Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky 4 (review) knocks this one out of the park. Like I said, this disc is mostly a memento for those who were at the concerts.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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