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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 2 in C minor Op 17 “Little Russian” (1872 rev. 1880) [32:26]
Symphony No 4 in F minor Op 36 (1878) [43:33]
Tonhalle-Orchester, Zurich/Paavo Järvi
rec. live Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, October 2019 (No 4) January 2020 (No 2). DDD.
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
ALPHA 735 [76:10]

This is the second release in what will be a complete series of the Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded live. The first volume featured the Fifth symphony and was warmly greeted by William Hedley on these pages – review – see also Late 2020 Retrospective.

Tchaikovsky’s Second symphony bears the nickname “Little Russian” due to its inclusion of Ukrainian folk songs, most notably in the delectable slow movement. It underwent serious revision by the composer in 1880, the version recorded here and the one most commonly used.

Whilst it contains a lot of vintage Tchaikovsky, the Second symphony can be hard to bring off in a wholly convincing way. The outer movements, in particular, can seem episodic and momentum can be easily lost. Perhaps Järvi benefits from the extra adrenaline of a live performance but there are no such concerns here. The finale in particular is a tour de force. Perhaps the gong crash toward the end could have been done with a touch more theatre but the rest of the movement is intensely exciting, helped out by thunderous timpani and yet another top drawer Alpha recording. Having listened to Pletnev, Neeme Järvi, Bernstein and several others in this finale, I vouch for the fact that none of them can match Paavo Järvi for sheer panache. His approach to the Moderato introduction is very broad, to maximise the contrast with the faster main section. The effect is almost reminiscent of the climax of the 1812 Overture.

The rest of the symphony is equally well done. The slow movement is handled with almost balletic grace and a wit that makes even Abbado’s classic VPO account seem a little staid (DG 4295272, also with No 4 – download only, or Eloquence 4826168, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 and Nutcracker Suite – review review). This is a serious contender in a competitive field and Paavo Järvi is a natural in this music.

The competition is even fiercer with the Fourth symphony. Only six years separate the first version of the Second and the composition of the Fourth, but the latter represents a quantum leap in terms of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic development. No work better reflects the fallout from Tchaikovsky’s disastrous attempt at marriage than this work, particularly the first movement where Fate blares out on full brass, intended to represent, in the composer’s own image, the sword of Damocles.

This opening movement combines numerous disparate elements and can prove tricky to weld into a convincing argument from start to finish. To my ears, Abbado’s version on DG, which won a rosette in the Penguin Guide (see above), sometimes lets the momentum sag. Mravinsky is incomparable in this movement in both of his DG accounts. My preference is for the earlier one. From the almost feral assault on the motto theme by the Leningrad brass, he doesn’t let up. Järvi is a more thoughtful guide. It is beautifully played and immaculately shaped but at times the symphonic thread seems to get a little lost. The climaxes are suitably thrilling but the various sections don’t seem to fit together as convincingly as they do for Mravinsky. One aspect that did impress me greatly was Järvi’s handling of the last appearance of the first subject in the final bars of the coda. Where most conductors push this version on tremolo strings as hard as they can, creating a highly febrile almost overstretched sound, Järvi does the opposite and dials things back a little. The effect is almost Gothic and highly effective.

I did have some concerns about the slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest inspirations. The folk inspired opening melody sounds a little glib to my ears, not helped by the rather brisk tempo. Järvi and his excellent orchestra do work up an impressive head of steam later in the movement but others, for example Abbado and especially Mravinsky, dig deeper.

The Alpha recording really comes into its own in the third movement scherzo, where the pizzicato strings leap out of the speakers. Ideally I would have liked a bit more characterisation of the tipsy woodwind writing in the trio but the interplay between the scherzo elements and those of the trio at the end are done with great flair and sound stunning.

The finale is an absolute riot in the best sense, with the final eruption of the Damocles motto suitably cataclysmic and a huge adrenaline rush as Järvi and his players stampede for the line. I expect this had the audience on their feet at the time of the recording.

All told, this is a highly enjoyable release and well worth hearing, especially for the Second, which stands out in a densely packed catalogue. The Fourth, on the other hand, is very good, but just a little short of the very best.

David McDade



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