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Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no. 4 in F minor, op.36 [41:07]
Symphony no. 5 in E minor, op.64 [42:17]
Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74,’Pathétique’ [43:10]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Yevgeny Mravinsky
rec. (originally for DG) in London, September and November 1960.
ALTO ALC1603 [67:22 + 59:36]

These are famous performances, made in the studio in the autumn of 1960. Perhaps the fact that they are studio recordings is one of the extraordinary things about them, for they have the urgency and passion of live events. Mravinsky had a near-perfect understanding of how to ‘do’ Tchaikovsky; he allows expressive rubato, though never overdoes it, and gives his solo wind players plenty of space to phrase beautifully. There is an almost classical poise about passages such as the first movement expositions in the 4th and 6th symphonies, but when the drama is cranked up, especially in the central episodes of those same two movements, his response, and that of his musicians, is shattering.

The recording has been re-mastered for Alto with customary skill by Paul Arden-Taylor, though I suspect he would agree that the originals were fine examples of their period. Even if there is not the clarity one would expect from a modern digital recording, the balance is mostly satisfying, with no more than subtle spotlighting of individual instruments.

The 4th Symphony, which owes much of its feverish and bipolar character to the composer’s disastrous marriage, has a first movement that is one of Tchaikovsky’s finest achievements, with that haunted main theme always trying to escape from the looming fanfare representing the power of Fate. The whimsical contrasting music is superbly characterised by the conductor and his players. Some of the wind instruments’ tone may strike listeners as odd, with tremulous oboe and wobbly horn vibrato. But that’s the way Russian orchestras play – or at least they used to, and I for one regret the tendency towards uniformity that one hears with modern orchestras.

Having said that, the bassoon playing is exceptionally lovely, and is one of the most notable aspects of these performances – a good thing too, because there are so many wonderful solos in these three symphonies. The slow movement of the 4th is especially graced by this quality – indeed, this track is one of the most memorable in the set. Mravinsky had that invaluable knack of keeping the music moving – so often this movement drags – and yet allowing space for moments of special expression.

The 5th has never been one of my favourites. I’m never sure if Tchaikovsky’s heart was truly in it, and it follows much the same emotional path as the 4th, but with less conviction. When the ‘motto theme’ bursts out in the finale, it rarely sounds truly convincing – a pyrrhic victory, for all the music has been doing, it seems to me, is madly running round in circles for the previous 20 minutes! Mravinsky does his best, and does come up with a very fine account of the Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza (‘quite slow, songful, with some freedom’), the orchestra appropriately brutal in the two dramatic interruptions by the motto theme.

In the Pathétique we have one of the very greatest of 19th century symphonies. And an original one, too, in its revised order of movements, culminating in the devastating Adagio lamentoso. There are so many wonderful things in this supreme recorded performance. In the opening movement, there is the beauty of the phrasing of the great second subject, and the frightening emotional crisis that follows. Then the end of this movement, in Mravinky’s hands, is incredibly moving. He follows it with a particularly successful version of the 5/4 Allegro con grazia, which never escapes from the dark shadow of the first movement.

The brilliant March of the third movement has a reckless, blundering sense of self-destruction, which rightly finds its emotional outcome and response in the great lament of the finale. This symphony has the capacity to move one to tears, and, in the hands of these musicians, with their unwavering belief in the music, it does just that.

In all probability, we shall never know the precise circumstances that brought about Tchaikovsky’s death just nine days after he had conducted the work’s premiere. Whatever it was, the Pathétique certainly lays open the composer’s heart. That is the challenge for the performer, one that Mravinsky and his Leningrad players rise to magnificently in these great recordings.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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