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Tchaikovsky sym4 4257922
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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 [43:30]
1812 Overture, Op. 49 [15:24]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnanyi
rec. Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria, December 1988
Presto CD
DECCA 425 792 2 [57:24]

As part of my preparation for reviewing this on-demand issue by Presto Classics, I did some research on the conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi. Never one of the more glamorous beasts in the conductor jungle, he has nonetheless amassed a remarkably large legacy of recordings, mainly from the 1980s and 1990s, usually with the Cleveland Orchestra, of whom he was principal conductor between 1984 and 2002. There were a Beethoven Symphony cycle for Telarc, a Brahms cycle for Teldec, a Schumann cycle, plus Bruckner, Mozart and Dvořák Symphonies for Decca, all in Cleveland. He was even entrusted with recording a new Ring Cycle for Decca, abandoned midway, to replace their legendary account forged by Georg Solti decades earlier. That earlier cycle was taped with the Vienna Philharmonic, with whom Dohnanyi also had a close association, and with whom he set down a Mendelssohn symphony cycle, plus some tone poems of Richard Strauss, once more for Decca. The common theme here is the central-European, mainly German, repertoire. Dohnanyi was a reliable, if perhaps never a charismatic or flamboyant, guide to that music. So, I was intrigued when this recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony taped with the Vienna Philharmonic came up for review: surely Dohnanyi would be a bit too serious for the passionate histrionics of Tchaikovsky?

The recording of the 1812 Overture confirmed my suspicions: a professional run-through, no more. The opening sets the tone. Everything is spick ‘n span, but really this is music that thrives the more your throw at it, as demonstrated by the most celebrated recordings. For me, these would include Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on RCA with his choirs, Kenneth Alwyn and the LSO on Decca with the Grenadier Guards, Antal Dorati and the Minnesota Orchestra on Mercury with French bronze cannon, or even Erich Kunzel and the Boston Pops with Telarc’s (in)famous warnings on the front cover for the health of the listener’s speakers – you get the picture. Okay, Karajan’s super-slavic Don Cossack Choir opening warblings may be a bit too much of a good thing for most listeners on his 1966 Berlin traversal for DG, but thereafter at least he generates considerable fire and adrenaline. That is more than Dohnanyi can muster on this disc some 20 odd years after, even with fine Decca digital sound and good spatial definition as the cannon fire at each other across the room from each speaker. This is Tchaikovsky hewn from a block of freezing Russian ice, with a similar amount of heat and passion, but the music needs and deserves so much more.

Happily, the performance of the symphony is a different matter entirely. It is dark, brooding, dramatic, but at all times true to the score, whilst revealing superb articulation and phrasing, which in other hands may inadvertently draw attention to themselves. Dohnanyi demonstrates the benefit of playing this music straight, without any of the mannerisms that so marred what would otherwise have been a very fine account of the recently issued recording by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony for Reference Recordings. True, it may not have the demonic intensity of Mravinsky’s ancient classic with the Leningrad PO on DG, nor perhaps Karajan’s high drama and drive on his two recordings he made with the Berlin PO in the 1970’s, either for EMI and DG, to name three of my favourites – but it has nearly everything else, and it has better sonics than both. Even so, in a crowded field, it is merely a very good performance that does not quite take its place amongst the greatest.

To summarise, this is a good performance of the symphony with a rather disappointing coupling. Kudos to Presto Classics for making it more widely available again, but readers can do much better with both works if they consider the more celebrated recordings I listed or, no doubt, their own favourites.

Lee Denham

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