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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4, in F minor, Op. 36 [47:59]
Symphony No. 5, in E minor, Op. 64 [43:32]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (‘Pathétique’) [55:28]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Dawn on the Moscow River, Prelude to Khovanshchina (orchestration D. Shostakovich) [7:02]
Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, in B-flat major, Op. 94 [29:13]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, in A minor, Op. 77 [43:32]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Elegy for Violin Solo [5:43]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 [32:29]
Leipzig Gewandhausorchester/Andris Nelsons
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Baiba Skride (violin)
rec. live 19-20 December, 2019 (Symphony No. 4 & Weinberg & Mussorgsky); 17-18 May, 2019 (Symphony No. 5 & Shostakovich); 15-16 March, 2018 (Symphony No. 6 & Mozart) at Gewandhaus zu Leipzig, Germany
Sound format: DTS HD Master Audio, PCM Stereo; Picture format: 16:9 NTSC, Full HD
Reviewed in Stereo
ACCENTUS ACC60508 Blu-ray [3 discs: 281 mins]

The last three Tchaikovsky symphonies contained in this Accentus 3-disc set are each paired with one or two rather disparate pieces by composers whose styles have relatively little in common with Tchaikovsky's. Yet, collectively the works make fine variety as concert fare, and I would surmise that had you attended the concerts from which these performances were drawn, you would likely have found the repertory most enjoyable.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth opens in a stately yet austere way, the horns, trumpets and woodwinds sounding dour and deliberate in their renderings of the fate theme. The main theme follows and is phrased and played quite beautifully, as is the dreamy alternate one. The development section is well conceived and executed, especially in the passionate treatment of that struggling, yearning motif (from 48:36) played mostly by strings that powerfully builds on the tension. The fate theme grows more agitated and sinister here, and precipitates a powerful climax. The remainder of the movement is very convincing.

In the ensuing panel Nelsons focuses on the gorgeous lyrical aspects of the main theme, with a somewhat expansive tempo and sense of lightness. The brighter alternate theme has a happy demeanor and builds to an ecstatic beauty here. In the main theme's return, Nelsons does something a bit unusual: background detail from woodwinds jumps right out at you, intruding somewhat on the strings as they play quietly and elegantly. As the end approaches Nelsons subtly wrings out a darker sense, as the tempo slackens.

The pizzicato main theme in the Scherzo has an irresistible energy here, and the whole movement effervesces delightfully. I haven't heard this music played any better. The finale has the proper celebratory air, the brass sounding blissful and euphoric at the start, not bombastic or lordly as is the case in many lesser performances. The strings and woodwinds provide plenty of energy and when the fate theme arrives at the climax the music fades subtly into uncertainty. The ending is pure joy, the orchestra playing brilliantly here and throughout. A fine Fourth then.

The performance of the Fifth is also quite convincing, if a bit controversial. It opens with an appropriately solemn and slow introduction, the motto or fate theme brooding and gloomy. The primary or main theme follows and though paced a bit more expansively than is customary, it has plenty of spirit and emotional thrust. The second theme group brightens the mood here, but at 57:13 Nelsons phrases the melody (D major) a bit strangely: it is played so softly at the outset that you hear the background scoring on woodwinds almost as prominently. Gradually the melody comes nicely into focus and the development section that follows is quite effective. The remainder of the movement is well conceived and played, though again with the D major theme phrased rather eccentrically at the outset.

The next movement, with its two famous and lovely themes, features somewhat leisurely pacing, but with playing that divulges just about the last ounce of feeling and commitment by the Gewandhaus players. Nelsons and company also brilliantly point up the charm and elegance of the third movement waltz. The strings and woodwinds capture the fantasy-like character of Tchaikovsky here so well. In the finale Nelsons delivers the motto theme at the outset in an appropriately grand manner, yet with a hint of darkness as well. The Allegro vivace music that follows is energetic and brimming with an infectious playfulness. The movement ends in great triumph to crown this fine if somewhat controversial performance.

Few conductors, it seems, fail to leave a positive impression with the Tchaikovsky Sixth. Nelsons is no exception: he delivers a fine account, though the main theme in the first movement exposition is slightly understated. The alternate theme is beautifully phrased and performed, though once again, its initial appearance features very soft dynamics. That said, the music here grows in passion and in the end Nelsons' way comes across convincingly. The development section is full of fire and drama, building to a most impressive climax. The recapitulation is well played and the coda, paced very slowly, is most effective here. The second movement has a pleasant lightness and dreamy character in the playing of the main theme, but turns dark in the alternate theme, again with Nelsons' showing a preference for very soft dynamics in certain places. The music fades very elegantly at the close.

At the outset the ensuing panel brims with vitality and vivid colors from all sections of the orchestra, the strings especially standing out in their driving but graceful energy. The March begins appropriately as a joyous theme of burgeoning triumph and as the movement progresses it grows in grandeur. But, as Tchaikovsky intended, it never reaches the powerful climax it augurs, as it symbolizes frustration and disappointment. It comes across effectively that way in this well phrased and well played performance. Nelsons and company deliver one of the best accounts of the finale I've ever encountered. Tempos are on the slow side, especially in the D major middle section theme, and the sense of overwhelming sadness pervades the music throughout: this is heartrending stuff, tragedy of the darkest character. The coda seems to weep as a variant of the D major theme, now in B minor, struggles to express its insufferable grief. Overall, this is an excellent Sixth, with a powerhouse finale.

Coupled with the Sixth is the Mozart Symphony No. 40, a work of mostly opposite moods, despite its G minor key, one of only two minor key numbered symphonies by Mozart. It is often viewed as heralding the Romantic movement, and thus it is no surprise Nelsons and the Gewandhaus players deliver a rather Romantic account of the work. The size of the ensemble here is relatively substantial and sonorities are thus more weighty and textures a bit thicker. Moreover, rough edges are sanded and there is often a feeling of warmth and leisure. Yet the playing has plenty of energy and lightness when called for. Overall, I can say I like this treatment, especially as an antidote to some of the more extreme approaches at the other end from the HIP partisans.

The Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 is one of two works sharing the disc with the Tchaikovsky Fifth. The performance by Baiba Skride is a good one, though some may find her tempos a bit on the slow side, especially when compared with Oistrakh on Melodiya from about 1970 or on Praga from 1957; or with Viktoria Mullova on Philips from 1988. Both Oistrakh and Mullova shave around three minutes or more from the first movement. Yet, I find Skride's interpretation overall a thoughtful, deep approach to this dark concerto. Nelsons and the Gewandhaus players offer fine support too. Ms. Skride plays an unlikely encore, Stravinsky's Elegy, not exactly a typical showpiece but a worthwhile selection nonetheless, performed quite convincingly here.

There are also two works sharing the disc with the Tchaikovsky Fourth, the Mussorgsky Khovanshchina Prelude and the Weinberg Trumpet Concerto. The Mussorgsky is given in Shostakovich's orchestration and the performance is fine, well phrased by Nelsons and gorgeously played by the Gewandhaus musicians. The Weinberg Trumpet Concerto, a work new to me, is a very interesting piece that has attained some currency in the concert hall. Those familiar with Weinberg's style will know what to expect: strains of Shostakovich do permeate much of the music, but Weinberg was mostly his own man. The first movement features a nervous four-note motto, whose notes are spat out in spastic phrases with a sense of agitation. But soon the music takes on a lighter, witty manner with very colorful scoring. The following panel is quite lyrical and more serious, in fact the most substantive of the three movements. The finale is full of humor, with distorted quotes of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, clever exchanges between trumpet and percussion, peeps and squeaks and burps from woodwinds, commentary from various solo instruments, and mostly quiet, mischievous playing in the latter half that builds with sparse scoring to one loud chord at the end. Håkan Hardenberger delivers a fine, spirited performance and Nelsons and company turn in splendid work as well.

The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction in all performances are state of the art. As for the competition in the three Tchaikovsky symphonies, there's relatively little on video. Back in May of 2019 I reviewed an excellent set of all six symphonies on Arthaus Musik Blu-ray with Philippe Jordan leading the Paris Opera Orchestra, which I found quite fine. Gergiev, from 2018, has a set of the last three symphonies on Mariinsky (Blu-ray), which I have not heard but can surmise is probably very good. Thanks to Rob Maynard's post on the Message Board, I learned there is another set of all the symphonies, on DVD, alongside many other Tchaikovsky works, by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, housed though on seven (!) discs on Poloarts/RM, a set that is probably not widely available.

Tchaikovsky mavens looking for a set of these three symphonies or all six of them would likely want to avoid dealing with works by other composers. Thus, if video is the format you're seeking, Jordan or Gergiev or Fedoseyev may be your preference. On CD you can obviously put together a fine set of the last three symphonies from Bernstein (Sony, not the later DG set), Karajan (DG), Abbado (DG) and many others. All that said, this new set of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 and other works is a first class offering and in fine engineering. Moreover, if you find most or just some of the couplings of interest, you certainly won't be disappointed by this Accentus Blu-ray set.

Robert Cummings

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