Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tchaikovsky's symphonies

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the fifth instalment, I re-examine the symphonies of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). As a highly melodic romantic, he is one of the composers who should be my taste, yet failed to impress me to that extent in the past - so I wondered what I would think of these works now.

Symphony 1 in G minor "Winter Daydreams", op.13 (1866)
My version: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/von Karajan (DG, 1979, 45 min)
A young man's symphony, melodic but conventional in structure, and continuing the road paved by say Mendelssohn. The first two movements have programmatic subtitles (Dreams of a winter journey, Land of desolation land of mists), which add little to the musical substance for me. The first Allegro movement is fine but not outstanding, the second Andante is lovely, and often almost ballet like in its melodic flow and rhythms. One of his most appealing symphonic movements. The Scherzo waltzes happily in one ear and out the other, pleasant but at times it sounds a bit out of place in a symphony (it would make a great movement in one of his serenades), and a Finale that ranges from vigorous to introspective closes the work out in style. Not a masterpiece, but comparing favourably to the first symphonies of say Dvorak.

My version: USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra/Fedoseyev (Melodiya, 1987, 35 min)
The term "joyous" really fits this work, which makes use of a number of Ukrainian folk songs as inspiration, and which led to its nickname. The first movement, Andante giving way to Allegro, is strong and confident, the subsequent wedding march inspired Andantino surprisingly short. The Scherzo is one of the best of that type in his symphonic repertoire, vivid, imaginative, yet fully in its place in the symphony. The Finale is based on the folk song The crane, with lovely variations on the theme, sometimes ballet-like but still within the definitions of the symphony. Overall, a very confident work, and a step up in consistency compared to the first.

Symphony 3 in D major "Polish", op. 29 (1875)
My version: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/von Karajan (DG, 1979, 45 min)
A very original work, right from the opening movement, which swings between funeral march and optimistic melodies in a not quite convincing way. Abandoning the classical four-movement structure for the only time in his symphonic oeuvre, Tchaikovsky follows up with an additional Scherzo before the slow movement. This Alla Tedesca is in the style of a German dance, quite elegant, but not for the first time I get the feeling this movement would be better placed in a serenade than in a symphony. The lyrical Andante is simply beautiful though, one of his best movements. The second Scherzo fits much better in the overall composition than the first. The final is based on polonaise rhythms, and inspired the work's nickname. It is at times dramatic but suffers from a (for this composer astonishing) lack of melodic ideas.

My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky (IMP, 1987, 43 min)
The opening fanfares set the scene for a dramatic and tragic first movement, which is the longest in his repertoire and accounts for almost half this symphony. It is far from easy, but certainly rewarding. The andantino continues the same mood, be it at a more relaxed and beautiful pace, with the oboe initially dominating the proceedings. The short Scherzo, with pizzicato strings, provides a good change of pace whilst staying in symphonic lay-out and mood. The Finale closes out the symphony with a bang. returning to the mood (and even fanfares) of the Opening. At the time of composition, reception was very mixed, also because of the imbalance of the movements. In hindsight, this is an excellent symphony, way better than the first three.

My version: Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Jansons (Chandos, 1988, 53 min)
His unnumbered programmatic symphony, based on the Byron poem. Through the years, appreciation of this work has slowly but surely increased - and in a recent poll on the Talk Classical forum it was one of 25 symphonies making the final round to determine the best symphony of all time. The first movement (lento lugubre...) immediately introduces the beautiful Manfred theme (like Berlioz' idee fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique), and continues to portray the tormented soul of the protagonist very effectively. This first movement actually would have worked - as the composer later contemplated - very well on its own as a tone poem. The Vivace scherzo is at the start and the end remarkably devoid of melodies, relying on orchestral colours to evoke the mood. Of course, once a melody does appear in the middle, it turns out to be one of his finest. The pastoral Andante is hauntingly beautiful, yet truly symphonic. In the Final, Manfred marches into a palace in hell, to meet his end. The music is dramatic as befitting the scene, interspersed with tender melodic moments representing the spirit of his beloved Astarte. Before the replay exercise, I would have picked this as my favourite Tchaikovsky symphony by far. The replay confirmed its greatness.

My version: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/von Karajan (DG, 1976, 50 min)
The tragic first movement recalls the opening of Beethoven's fifth, not in themes or melodies, but in atmosphere. In true Tchaikovsky style though, there are great melodic parts, in particular near the subdued end. The Andante starts with a haunting horn melody, taken over by the orchestra. There is an almost Mahlerian sadness and frustration to this part, very unlike most of his slower movements - but very effective. The scherzo is a waltz, but suitably restrained and fitting in the overall scheme. The Finale has a noble feeling to it, with resignation slowly giving way to optimism. Re-listening to this symphony was a pleasant surprise. I found it much, much stronger than I remembered.

My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky (IMP, 1987, 47 min)
Its nickname does not translate to pathetic, but more to highly emotional. "Melancholic" would have been an apt nickname, because this is the emotion that pervades the symphony right from the first (slow) movement - and it has been speculated that his impossible love for his nephew was the main inspiration. Tchaikovsky spins beautiful sad melodies in this movement, which has inspired a number of popular songs 50-60 years ago, but also moments of hysteric madness. The clarinet-theme and the brass chorale at the end ends this impressive opening movement in peace after almost 20 minutes. Perhaps not surprising, the second movement is one of his gorgeous waltzes, a great contrast to the heaviness of the first - even though this has its darker moments as well. Next up is a playful scherzo, which ends in a spectacular coda - only to give way immediately to the resigned sounds that open the final movement. There is no relief here, the mood is pitch black upto the quiet ending which foreshadows his own death less than two months after finishing this unconventional masterpiece.

All in all, this rediscovery tour was a pleasant surprise - these works were in general far better than I remembered.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: none
Essential: Manfred Symphony, Symphonies 5,6
Important: Symphony 4
Good to have: Symphony 2
Not required: Symphonies 1,3