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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky 2020
Alexander Malofeev, Boris Berezovsky, Maxim Mogilevsky, Miroslav Kultyshev (piano)
Pavel Milyukov (violin)
Boris Andrianov (cello)
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. 2019, Saydachev Hall, Kazan
Currently only available as download or via various streaming services
SONY CLASSICS [10 CDs: 519:15]

This year marks the 180th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth. This box set also marks the tenth anniversary of Sladkovsky as Artistic Director of this orchestra. The Kazan-based cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies and concertos on Melodiya was a well-received, fine introduction to the orchestra and conductor. The TNSO have also made recordings of several Mahler symphonies for Melodiya. This is the first occasion when I have heard them in Tchaikovsky’s music.

Hans Keller wrote ‘Tchaikovsky is the neurotic artist par excellence’ but the composer is regarded quite differently in his homeland. Indeed, Keller wrote that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies foreshadow Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s symphonic works. ‘The symphonic world never was the same again after this Sixth symphony had been performed.’ The conductor of this new cycle says: ‘For me, Tchaikovsky is the Russian Beethoven – our leading symphonist, and a composer of unbelievable energetic power. […] Regardless of the tragedy in his symphonic legacy, in our interpretation there will be power, enlightenment and love.’

I have decided to make comparisons with three of the most celebrated collections of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos, 1985-1987), Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra (Pentatone, 2015, his second cycle), and Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO, 2006-2012). First, the timings.

  Sladkovsky Jansons Pletnev Jurowski
Symphony No. 1 45:09 43:57 46:06 41:35
Symphony No. 2 34:15 34:03 32:08 32:41
Symphony No. 3 46:06 44:52 46:21 44:22
Symphony No. 4 42:28 41:30 42:53 43:17
Symphony No. 5 45:35 43:11 47:11 41:30
Symphony No. 6 46:37 43:30 46:50 46:44
Manfred 48.18 53:20 59:29 59:02

In the First Symphony ‘Winter Daydreams’, the Kazan orchestra play delightfully. They offer some exceptional solos by the flute, clarinet, bassoon, and oboe, with marvellous backing from the strings, and superb brass playing. In the Allegro tranquillo, there is quite beautiful clarinet playing by Artur Muchamedzhin, and Sladkovsky develops an admirable momentum. In the Adagio cantabile, Sladkovsky finds an affinity with the Russian nationalist school in some of the beautifully played phrasing in evocations of folk music, something that is not always apparent. The Scherzo, colourfully played, shows all the mastery of the conductor and brings out the virtuosity of the musicians. Sladkovsky brings this wonderful symphony to a splendid close in the Andante lugubre. He brilliantly enacts exuberant festive holiday with the little Russian folk song embellished throughout the finale with trombones, tuba, cymbals, and gran casa bringing the splendid celebrations to the culmination. As a comparison, Pletnev in both his cycles for DG (1996) and Pentatone (2015) makes some curious decisions on tempi, especially in the opening and closing movements, for which I see no justification. There is a hint of Golovanov in his own recording of the First Symphony. The veteran conductor played loose and fast with the tempi, as he did in operas and orchestral works. Golovanov justified this by saying that he too was a composer. So is Mikhail Pletnev but his interpretation is more like a winter nightmare than the expected daydream.

The Second Symphony is beautifully characterised. Sladkovsky adheres closely to the markings. All the beauty and romanticism are brought out. Again I was impressed by the fantastic brass department of this orchestra, a notable feature throughout this cycle. There is some wonderful playing from the horns, and the depth of cadence by the cellos is outstanding, and dramatic playing in the driving rhythms, and what flute playing from Venera Porfirieva! Her virtuosity is fully matched by the oboe of Andrey Shubin. Sladkovsky shows again the affinity with the nationalist school, with gentle rhythms, fine timpani and again the excellent woodwinds. This orchestra has great steely discipline in the strings, matched by a rich bloom in nuancing and phrasing. I can only compare this magnificent playing with the St Petersburg Philharmonic or the Mariinsky Orchestra – for the trumpets, trombones and French horns here eloquently evince the colours in Tchaikovsky’s score.

I have never been convinced by the Third Symphony ‘Polish’, either in the concert hall or by recordings but here the Tatarstan musicians create a winning symphonic masterpiece in which every department of the orchestra play out of their skins. Sladkovsky has ensured that his players believe in this music, too, in a regal performance. From the opening bars of the Introduzione e allegro, the true haunting atmosphere is developed on the winds, picked up on the strings, and the contribution by the brass is quite gorgeous. A thrilling development and the excellent climax present a thrillingly dramatic portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s romanticism. Noticeably, the sound picture achieved by the Sony engineers is fine in the spacing between sections of the orchestra and grasping fully the benefits of the hall. In the Alla tedesca, there is again wonderful woodwind playing, and glorious violin playing led by Alina Yakonina. The Andante is notable for brilliant fluid flute playing by Porfirieva, and the splendidly vibrant horns. In the Scherzo flutes, clarinet and the horns are magical. The finale Allegro con fuoco brings colourful, thrilling climax, dramatic and upbeat and triumphant. This is a winning performance of an underrated symphony, and a highlight of this set.

Now we come to the symphony of ‘fate’. Tchaikovsky reached the pinnacle of symphonic music, sharing his genius with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The surging opening Andante sostenuto is among the most impressive, impassioned music of all the romantic school. Sladkovsky pushes his players at sometimes an impossible pace and frequently on a par with Mravinsky’s famous 1960 recording. The strings, woodwinds and brass play to the maximum of performing ability. They surge forward, and one wonders what it was like in the hall listening to this terrific music. The key is that this familiar music sounds quite fresh. There is a degree of discipline in the strings. They sound quite amazing, and towards the close of the first movement the descent into the abyss is thrillingly depicted. The high quality of playing continues into the delightful Andantino. The strings add solemnity to their play, and the woodwinds play like birdsong in the forests, especially Porfirieva on the flute, matched by the bassoon of Ramil Safin. In the pizzicato section of the Scherzo, one is no longer amazed by the virtuosity of the strings. By this time one expects the musicians to keep showing fantastic musicality. The standard of playing by this orchestra is amazingly high, again with the chattering woodwind superlative in their musicality. The finale Allegro con fuoco is magnificent in its magical surge to a glorious culminating coda of joy and happiness. It brings this ever-popular symphony to a splendid close with the theme of fate magnificent on the horns, and the final storm to the climax.

Any new cycle has to compete with that by Jansons. I am glad to say that this new collection is on a par both in its musicality, powerful performance and interpretation. This recorded cycle on Sony Classics is graced by outstanding sound recording by a celebrated Russian record producer Pavel Lavrentyev. He has managed to grasp the acoustic value of the Saydachev Hall in Kazan perfectly. One should recognise that in recent decades both recording techniques and the musical standards of orchestral musicians have developed to higher levels. The instruments on which the Tatarstan musicians play are of the highest standards, and this is matched by their virtuosity.

In the Fifth Symphony, Sladkovsky presents a stirringly heroic account. He produces an immensely powerful interpretation which shows the affinity of the Fifth with the great 19th century symphonies, and even anticipates Mahler, reflecting on the Beethoven symphonic cycle. At every stage of the symphony, Sladkovsky brings out the nuances and tragic colours in Tchaikovsky’s music. One finds parallels with some of the great interpreters of the past century: Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Toscanini and Mravinsky. From the first bars of the Andante, a richly impassioned momentum is heard on magnificent strings. The theme of fate is heard mournfully on clarinets, the fresh motto theme on clarinet and bassoon bears melancholy but momentous passion. The bassoon of Safin intones the motto of fate before the timpani and basses close. In the Andante cantabile, the almost martial tread is slow, reflective, wonderfully played by the strings, and the glorious horn solo by Sergey Antonov is world-class in virtuosity. Before the close, we hear again delightful woodwinds, notably the oboe of Shubin. In the Valse, allegro moderato, the waltz theme is marvellously handled through subtly switching between elegance and the night; contributions by flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon are stunning in virtuosity and musicality. In the finale Andante maestoso, the dark, strident pulse is set by the trumpet of Denis Petrov, and the trombone of Ruslan Valeyev backing the tremendous build-up. The final magnificent culmination of pent-up tension is brilliantly performed.

It was with the Fifth Symphony that Jansons’s collaboration with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra became recognised as a force in the music world. For many years, his cycle has been considered the best in the catalogue. Jansons’s performance is superlative, with excellent solos in the woodwind but in the build-up to the final coda there is a restraint which seems unnecessary. Even so, the Fifth is one of the finest in that cycle. Sometimes, in this familiar music, one finds minute aspects which make Sladkovsky’s performance sound fresh and new. That is something absent in Pletnev’s recording, regardless of the unimpeachable virtuosity in musicianship and recording on the Pentatone set. Sladkovsky is better than Pletnev, who likes to shape out hard rhythms and cut phrasing in this symphony, often more so than Jansons. Sladkovsky studied with the Latvian maestro, who I suspect would be looking down from heaven with a smile if he could hear Sladkovsky’s Fifth.

There was a period when it was Tchaikovsky’s ballet music that was most popular. The composer John Ireland said: ‘I still like Tchaikovsky, believe it or not. […] I heard the first performance in England of his Sixth Symphony. It simply swept us off our feet. We had never heard such music before.’

The Pathétique is a major milestone in Russian symphonic music, and another masterpiece. The conductor must find the truthful pace and the appropriate thought in presenting the tragedy of this score without making it too dramatic and heart-breaking. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky’s music has been overly sentimentalised. Many Western conductors pulled out all the tragedy and dramatic melancholy of the symphony, diminishing the philosophy of Tchaikovsky and his work. In Pletnev’s first recording made in London with the Russian National Orchestra, there emerged a great musical partnership but subsequent settings on DG and Pentatone never matched the freshness and virtuosity of the 1991 Virgin Classics issue. The challenge is to attain the virtuosity and musicality in a work which the finest conductors have achieved in the last century. There are outstanding interpretations by Golovanov, Gauk, Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Fedoseyev and the current generation of Russian conductors.

Sladkovsky’s version of the Sixth places him and his musicians in direct competition with his predecessors. He finds the right reading to tackle this late romantic work, and finds parallels in Tchaikovsky’s music with Mahler and Wagner. (He did not favour these composers but the symphonic narrative is an essential aspect of their music.) The opening Adagio on the basses, and the bassoon of Safin and the momentum picked up by the strings is tremendously controlled. As the beautiful harmonies close, the startling dramatic burst of the Allegro non troppo proves exciting and fresh – as if portraying the death of the artist with a suggestion of the Orthodox liturgy. In the Allegro con grazia, there is more fine playing in the wistful waltz, delightful virtuosity. In the brilliant Allegro con vivace, there are stunning intonations by the brass and the wind sections. This tremendous tour de force rises to a stunning build-up of tension, and there is a wonderful fluid piccolo flute. In the finale Adagio lamentoso, like a requiem, the playing is intensely passionate on the strings, with especially fine playing on the horn, trumpets, cymbals, and desperately gloomy violins, and the double basses close.

The Manfred Symphony, based on Byron, stands apart from the cycle for its highly romanticised character. It is a subject which Tchaikovsky shares with Schumann and Liszt. Here the Tatarstan musicians play with great virtuosity. Certainly in the opening bars of the Lento lugubre the woodwind playing is quite magnificent, and backed tremendously by fine string playing, especially the violas and cellos. This is reinforced by the brass, and it all presents a tremendously colourful picture of the opening pictorial drama. Beautiful harmonies are heard on clarinet, bassoon, flute and oboe, and the harp of Natalya Antonova rises in a flow of passionate playing until the descent. In the Vivace con spirito, one can imagine Byron’s vision of the fairy in the rainbow at the waterfall, so well sketched are they in the woodwind playing. The swelling violins led by their leader Alina Yakonina conjure up a wonderfully dreamy picture. The Andante con moto presents beautiful play on the woodwinds and strings, as if in a Russian fairy tale (witnessing the composer’s love of nature), heard on the colourful woodwinds and the solo horn evoking the hunter’s horn. The final Allegro con fuoco is magnificent in its portrayal of Manfred’s demise in the orgy of bacchanalia, leading to the hero’s death The composer himself in a letter to Ippolitov-Ivanov called his finale 'loathsome' and numerous conductors including Rozhdestvensky, Svetlanov, Silvestri, Jansons and Toscanini make cuts in the finale. Sladkovsky uses the variant used by Temirkanov which reprises the concluding section of the opening movement, and makes the conclusion more dramatically impressive. The Manfred is among the highlights of this cycle and is more than the equal of the Pletnev, Jurowski, and Jansons performances.

The tempi adopted here are close to theirs but somehow Sladkovsky discovers a means of bringing out subtexts in the score which seemingly evades other conductors. He is ably assisted by his musicians, all the colour and drama of the prolonged opening movement are brought out. Again, despite hearing this symphony so many times, I find a freshness in the playing not previously heard in other performances. I understand that this orchestra do not play these symphonies as often as do other orchestras. It seems as if we are sharing with the musicians the discovery of something new in Tchaikovsky’s music. In Pletnev’s, Jurowski’s and Jansons’s interpretations, there is the feeling as if they have played this for the hundredth time without bringing out something new, and it seems more perfunctory. That is why this collection is better than the sets I chose for my comparison. This is a fresh approach without any unnecessary changes in tempo or in the music, with a thorough understanding of the score and the composer’s thoughts.

Simply put, if one was making a choice, it is Sladkovsky’s which is better in performance, interpretation and the sumptuously fine recording. I have not heard the recent cycles by Bychkov or Petrenko but it is this cycle from Sony Classics by the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra which I recommend. This is not only based on the performances of the symphonies, because the addition of the concertos and rarely heard works present a formidable attraction in a competitive market.

Each concertante piece features a different soloist. Most of them were unknown to me but almost all are prize-winners at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, from the thundering opening chords, opens an extremely exciting performance. The soloist Alexander Malofeev produces a brilliant virtuosic display of musicianship and artistry. The 17-year old is well supported by Sladkovsky and his musicians, with some lovely solos by clarinet and flute especially. Malofeev’s performance is quite extraordinary. Remarkably, he has the freshness approaching this ‘warhorse’ of the piano repertoire. There is a brightness and keenness to explore this phenomenally complex work. This is the highlight of the concerto pieces recorded here; this young man has a great future.

The Second Piano Concerto, with Boris Berezovsky at the keyboard, is marvellously performed. There are splendid solos from the violin of Alina Yakonina and the cello of Mikhail Grinchuk, bringing out all the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s score. The beauty and elegance of the piece is eloquently enhanced by mellifluous solos from the woodwinds and brass. Berezovsky is a supreme virtuoso at the keyboard. He has enjoyed years of collaboration with Sladkovsky and this orchestra, and they understand every nuance in Tchaikovsky’s score. Berezovsky chose to use the original score, not that arranged by Ziloti, an interesting choice. The wonderfully harmonious unity between the orchestra and Berezovsky brings out all the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s music. The culmination is splendidly exciting in what is one of the finest recordings.

A novelty in this release is the completed version of the Third Piano Concerto. Maxim Mogilevsky is both a distinguished soloist and teacher, who made his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of thirteen. He comes from an astonishing musical family. His great-grandfather was a friend of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Koussevitzky. He emigrated to China, taught there and in Japan, and was among the founders of the Japanese Violin School. Maxim’s grandfather was a founding member of the Glazunov Quartet and a friend of Shostakovich. Yevgeny Mogilevsky, Maxim’s father, won the 1964 Queen Elizabeth Piano Competition. Maxim has collaborated with many of the world’s celebrated musicians, and has organised piano masterclasses in America and China. His student George Li won second prize at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition.

The Concerto is rarely heard in the concert hall, but on this hearing deserves to be more often programmed. It displays a different side of the composer. Tchaikovsky died before he completed it. He had only finished the Allegro brilliante, and asked Taneyev to look over the Andante and Finale, saying that he would destroy the music if Taneyev did not approve. Death intervened. His pupil orchestrated the second and third movements, and gave the premiere. It was popular for several decades but it fell out of fashion. Another variant of the music was used for a Seventh Symphony by Bogatyrev, and a ballet by Balanchine. Mogilevsky in a splendid account makes the case for this work to be taken more seriously as a fine example of Tchaikovsky’s concertante repertoire. His argument is well supported by Sladkovsky and his orchestra, with colourful playing from the wind sections. The work is certainly shown to be full of engagingly colourful ideas, all performed at the highest level by Mogilevsky.

Yet another unusual item is the Concert Fantasia from 1884. Premiered by Taneyev, it was popular for many years until it strangely fell out of favour. It reappeared in the 20th century. Notably its first recording was by Noel Mewton-Wood in 1951. Here the soloist is the St Petersburg pianist Miroslav Kultyshev, who won second prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007 when no first prize was awarded. 35 years old now, he studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire with Alexander Sandler. The opening Quasi Rondo has an extended delightfully melodic cadenza. There are charm and ornamental pearls in this almost balletic music, with wonderful nuances from the flute of Porfirieva. The wealth of the melodies make one wonder why this is not heard more often. Kultyshev gives an entirely convincing account on why this should be heard regularly with a marvellously prolonged cadenza. The ideas which keep emerging are wholly captivating. One cannot stop admiring this forgotten gem. The second movement Contrastes has much wonderfully embroidered music, with gleaming pearls of harmony issuing from the pianist’s fingers. There is an eloquent segment for Mikhail Grinchuk on the cello in a beautiful solo and duet with the pianist. Andrey Shubin on oboe interestingly picks up an idea heard on the piano. The piece culminates in magnificently Lisztian style with a dazzling crescendo; the piano and orchestra triumph. The work contains some bewitching harmonies – all scintillatingly and brilliantly captured here – and is among the unexpected highlights of this Tchaikovsky set.

The more popular Violin Concerto is played here gloriously by an artist unknown to me. Pavel Milyukov, born in 1984, studied with Vladimir Ivanov at the Moscow Conservatoire, and won third prize at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. He augmented his studies with Boris Kuschnir at Graz Music University in Austria. Milyukov plays on an Ex-Szigeti Pietro Guarneri violin, and has performed widely with many leading musicians and orchestras. He produces a magnificent account; the bravura performance bursting with exceptional musicality There is plenty of emotional intensity in the approach to the first cadenza, and in the Andante cantabile, Milyukov evinces the melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s writing. There follow a wonderful spring-like mood and the contrast between the two diverse moods of darkness and bright sunlight. It was all marvellously performed by Sladkovsky’s musicians in supporting Milyukov’s superb playing. In the finale, the energy of the first movement returned in a folk dance which Hanslick named ‘a whiff of vodka’. It leaps from the soloist’s bow before the boisterous and upbeat finale. This is a fine recording and a great introduction to an outstanding young Russian violinist.

Finally, the Rococo Variations present another fine promising musician in Boris Andrianov. Born in 1976, Andrianov won third prize at the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition and has won numerous awards at major international competitions. He studied with Natalia Shakhovskaya and David Geringas. He established the VIVOCELLO Festival in 2008, the first cello music festival to be held in Russia. He has performed world-wide with many celebrated orchestras and musicians. Since 2009, he has been a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, and recorded several collaborations with players on diverse musical instruments. Andrianov plays on a Domenico Montagnana cello from the Russian Music Collection.

At once, in the opening Andante, Andrianov shows his marvellous virtuosity after the orchestra’s opening with his own graceful outline of the rococo theme. In the ensuing variations, the triplets, trills, and cadenzas – notably in the A major variation – are skilfully navigated. Sladkovsky’s musicians follow the brisk pace comfortably, and Porfirieva provides a splendid solo. This is matched in the fifth variation. The soloist produces masterly virtuosity before closing in a gloriously fine A major.

The Russian music school possesses an almost bottomless reservoir of talent. On the basis of this release, several of the soloists are destined for major careers both in Russia and the world. There are several complete sets of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, there are sets from Decca and Naxos which offer the three Piano Concertos, but none which include all the concertante works, and this makes this set an exception for the Tchaikovsky mavens.

Looking at individual works, I consider Sladkovsky’s accounts of the Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies the finest on the market, against all contemporary recordings. Sladkovsky’s symphonic cycle is recommended over those by Jansons, Jurowski, Pletnev, Svetlanov and Fedoseyev. There are historical recordings by Mengelberg, Mravinsky, Toscanini and Furtwangler, but this set goes to the top for outstanding interpretation, performance and recording. There is a passion appropriate to this music, a fine discipline parallel with that of Mravinsky’s recordings. The superlative sound picture on Sony allows everything to be heard in sumptuous sound. The set is a monument to the magnificent work of Alexander Sladkovsky who marks ten years of his collaboration with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra. He has transformed this ensemble of locally produced musicians into an orchestra of world-class standards. They have developed remarkably along this journey, all of which is a credit to Sladkovsky’s masterly leadership, education and direction.

The set of ten CDs benefits from illustrations of Tchaikovsky on each disc from the time when the music was composed. The booklet has interesting texts about Tchaikovsky, his life and music, by Russia’s leading authority Dr. Aida Ainbinder from the Klin Tchaikovsky Memorial Museum (commendably translated into English). The recording project was made possible by the assistance of the President of Tatarstan. This issue was released on streaming sites prior to its CD release by Sony Classics (Ed. The CD release appears to be delayed, presumably due to the COVID situation). This is highly recommended, and probably one of the finest releases of the year.

Gregor Tassie
Purchase links

Symphony No. 1
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6
Manfred Symphony
Violin Concerto
Variations on a Rococo Theme  
Piano Concerto No. 1
Piano Concerto No. 2
Concert Fantasia

The 3rd piano concerto does not appear on either site as a download.

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