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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, (‘Winter Dreams’) [43:20]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (‘Little Russia’) [34:35]
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29 (‘Polish’) [47:21]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 [42:06]
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 [44:22]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (‘Pathétique’) [45:54]
Paris Opera Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
rec. 2017, Opéra Bastille, Paris; 2018, Philharmonie Paris
Bonus tracks: Philippe Jordan talks about Tchaikovsky and his works
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DTS HD Master Audio; Picture format: 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109379 [3 discs: 340 mins]

Readers will take note that this Arthaus Musik set offers the six numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies, without the somewhat problematic Manfred Symphony. Some might regard that as a critical omission, but they will know that Manfred is not really formally a symphony. Including it might also necessitate a fourth disc and a higher price, thereby pushing purchase out of consideration for some.

The symphonies are paired in this live cycle according to likenesses perceived by the conductor Philippe Jordan. Disc 1 contains Nos. 1 and 5 because of the First’s imaginative character and the Fifth’s affirmative demeanor. Disc 2 houses Nos. 2 and 4 owing to their chronological proximity (the Second was rewritten in 1879, and the Fourth appeared the previous year). Nos. 3 and 6 are coupled on the final disc because Jordan regards them as milestones.

The individual timings for the symphonies are not given in the accompanying material, only a total timing for each disc. That includes time spent on applause at the end of the performances, opening and closing credits, and bonus features. I have listed the timings without all non-playing time, for the overall 2:57:38. The total of 340 minutes includes everything (bonus features, by the way, appear on separate tracks on each of the three discs).

Jordan’s tempos throughout the cycle are mostly in the moderate range, though the pacing is often deceptive; one senses briskness or energy much of the time, even when the tempo is not particularly fast. I had this feeling in the Fourth Symphony, especially in the first movement and finale. Yet, the overall timing is rather standard, and so one might conclude that the playing by the Paris Opera Orchestra nearly always sounds spirited, never lax or pedestrian. The Third Symphony is a bit on the expansive side, but again the music does not sound slow or leisurely paced.

In the First Symphony, Jordan and company capture the subdued and ethereal atmosphere of the opening with just the right dynamics and an appropriately lively tempo, imparting a sense that the music is evolving, burgeoning. The alternate theme is warm but also quite animated, and the development section unfolds nicely. The recapitulation and coda are well conceived and executed. The second movement is lovely here. Jordan makes about the best case possible for its music, repetitive though it becomes. The tone and playing of the strings, the cellos in particular, are outstanding. The variegated sounds and instrumentation of the Scherzo are deftly rendered; they seem, like so much in this symphony, to augur Sibelius. The finale begins darkly, as most Tchaikovsky mavens know, and here it is brought off quite convincingly. The celebratory character of the Allegro music in the main section comes across in vibrant colors and busy optimism. A fine performance!

The subtitle to the Second Symphony, ‘Little Russia’, a nickname for Ukraine, was attached to the work because Tchaikovsky employed three Ukrainian folk tunes in it. The first, Down by Mother Volga, appears at the outset. Here, the horn and bassoon solos deliver haunting and very effective accounts of it, conveying its dark but mellow character. The orchestra plays the Allegro vivo music with spirit and a sense of grit, which is most appropriate. Overall, Jordan draws a fine and idiomatic performance of this and the remaining movements. The second movement march is both jaunty and joyful, full of color and high spirits. Jordan manages to draw many shades of dynamics from the orchestra and even little details—secondary lines—emerge clearly but demurely, never tilting the sonic balance the wrong way. The Scherzo is another success: subtle, yet driven and brilliantly executed. The finale is lively, spirited and once again, extremely well played. Dynamics are multi-graded, meaningful detail emerges clearly and the phrasing throughout is natural and fluent, without the least eccentricity. Another splendid effort!

The Third Symphony is quite effective, even if its pacing is a tad on the expansive side. The first movement Introduction is played imaginatively, as if the music is unwinding or gradually awaking. The main theme is buoyant and energetic, and the alternate theme is warm and playful. The development section is driven and colorful, and the playing throughout is accurate and sensitive to the character of the music. The second movement waltz has a nice balletic feel here in its attractive, light character. The ensuing panel is folk-like especially in the way the bassoon and horn present the main theme. The alternate theme, however, comes across as somewhat Brahmsian, a description Tchaikovsky would loathe. Yet, the playing is beautiful and the music lovely. The Paris Opera Orchestra deliver the playful interchanges in the Scherzo, especially the woodwinds, precisely and with great feeling. The finale, with its famous Polonaise, is played exuberantly but, wisely, with a not too aggressive tempo. A fine performance overall. Curiously, the last two movements here are on the same track.

The Fourth Symphony opens a bit briskly. The horns deliver the fate motto steadily, though it could exhibit a somewhat more trenchant or edgy quality. The other brass join in and the music really takes wing. The main theme exudes the necessary sense of darkness and uncertainty, as Jordan manages to manipulate dynamics so subtly, so effectively. The rest of the movement goes well, though at the heart of the development section when the strings yearn and struggle as if to break away, the tempo is just a bit too fast. In the Andantino second movement, the oboe at the opening and the bassoon near the end both have a slightly tentative manner of shaping the main theme (Jordan’s idea?), though both play it well. Otherwise the music is well executed, with sensitive phrasing and judicious tempos. The last two movements are well conceived and played. The pizzicato playing in the third is brilliantly performed, and the finale is full of color and celebration. The fate motto returns ominously near the end but then yields to the irrepressible sense of joy and triumph.s

The Fifth Symphony begins in an appropriately dour vein with the presentation of the motto, and then only grudgingly brightens in the fiery Allegro section. The stage now nicely set, the alternate theme appears and the mood turns warmer and optimistic, the contrast quite effective. Jordan and company capture the conflicted and agitated character of the development section convincingly. Nothing here divulges bombast, a characteristic of so many performances of this symphony. The recapitulation features some exaggerated pianos, but they hardly sabotage this mostly effective rendering of this movement. The second panel is utterly beautiful here: the principal horn phrases the main theme with warmth and fluency, his tone and dynamics seemingly flawless. The orchestra picks up from there and delivers the remainder of the movement with a deft balance of precision and sensitivity. The third movement waltz has lift and elegance, and sets the mood for the triumphant finale. Jordan and company begin in stately, solemn fashion as they should, but then in the Allegro vivace section they unleash all the energy and verve needed to convey the high spirits and ultimate triumph the composer intended to cap this symphony with. The final statement of the motto theme is utterly ecstatic and all-conquering. This is perhaps the best performance in the set.

The account of the Sixth Symphony is excellent too. The Introduction is appropriately grim and funereal. The main Allegro section arrives with a light tread but retains the unsettled atmosphere from the opening. The famous alternate theme is played with great feeling, and its contrasting second subject on flute is nicely rendered. Jordan manages to attain seemingly perfect instrumental balances from the orchestra. The development section begins with a jolt, and hurtles ahead with ferocity and hell-bent determination. This whole movement is powerfully impactful. The ensuing panel comes across masterfully as lively, elegant and playful, with little hint of the sadness that preceded, except for the reflective B section wherein a drumbeat accompanies strings that seem almost to cry. In the deceptive third movement Jordan milks the music for all its unbridled energy and glory, his orchestra delivering the goods handsomely. But of course this movement is thought to represent frustration and disappointment, because of the deliberately restrained climaxes. Still, it must be played with all out drive and triumph, as it is here. Jordan’s finale is forlorn and tragic, as it should be, and he does not go overboard by stretching the tempo as some conductors do, most notably Bernstein in his 1987 DG recording with the New York Philharmonic. This is a most effective performance of the finale and it crowns a splendid account of this great symphony.

The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity on this Blu-ray disc are all first rate. The bonus features include commentary by Jordan on each symphony as well as other topics relating to Tchaikovsky. As for competition, I am unaware of any other complete cycle on video, though Gergiev, on the Mariinsky label, has done the last three symphonies and could be finishing up with the first three soon. Thus, Jordan has the field to himself. There are many excellent cycles of these symphonies on CD, including those by Kitayenko (Oehms), Ormandy (RCA) and Svetlanov (originally on Melodiya), the latter hampered a bit by dated sound. I have familiarity with numerous performances from other sets by Karajan, Maazel, Abravanel, Rostropovich and others. Jordan is competitive with the best of these and has perhaps the best sound reproduction. Moreover, despite the Paris Opera Orchestra’s limitation almost exclusively to theater music, their playing of symphonic repertory, at least here and in the Beethoven symphonies (Arthaus Musik, 2016), is world-class. So, as Tchaikovsky symphony sets go, this one is a true winner all around.

Robert Cummings

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