This mid-price twofer gives collectors an alternative to the standard recommendations for the first three Tchaikovsky symphonies. On the basis of sound alone, Gergiev's new set surpasses the decades-old Dorati and Markevtich performances on Philips and Mercury. As it happens, the LSO plays on all three; here it is in top form, which wasn't necessarily true on the older releases. The first three symphonies are imperfect works, full of beauty but garrulous and displaying Tchaikovsky's struggle to master the long form of the symphony with its requirement for tight development of themes - at times, we are in the world of the ballet or orchestral suite instead. I'm always on the lookout for revelatory readings of these works, which are rare. Let me give my impression of Gergiev's interpretations.
Sym. 1 "Winter Dreams" - B+/A-
For years the standard recommendation for a stand-alone version has been the young Michael Tilson Thomas with the Boston Sym. on DG, a reading that is refined, polished, a bit lacking in energy, and decidedly balletic. I prefer Bernstein's more ebullient, vigorous version with the New York Phil. on Sony (to be found in the complete symphonies or a deleted Royal Edition CD). In the first movement Gergiev comes closer to MTT in balletic mood and intimacy. His overall timing of 12:00 makes the pacing veer towards the grand; this is a difficult movement to find a convincing tempo for, but I wish that Gergiev were half a minute faster. Even so, the playing is beautiful, the phrasing full of character, as you'd expect.
The second movement, marked "slow and singing" (Adagio cantabile), is also given a refined reading, reminding me that one of Gergiev's strengths is slow, soft music. The timing of 12:06 is basically identical to Bernstein's (as was the first movement), but Bernstein is more direct and less dream-like. The third movement is meant to be merry (the marking is 'scherzando giocoso'), and I'm afraid Gergiev doesn't get there. His reading is springy and yet too careful. He can be this way in Tchaikovsky's ballets, too, missing the sheer abandon and joy of certain sections. For me, the best movement in this performance is the finale, with its sad, moody beginning that gives way to the sunshine of a majestic Allegro; Gergiev finds the right balance of ceremony and exhilaration.
In all, this is as good a "Winter Dreams" as I've heard in recent years but not a revelation - maybe there never will be one in such a baggy, repetitive work. I'll stick with Bernstein. As for more recent rivals, the closest are Vladimir Jurowski with the London Phil. on the orchestra's house label and Yuri Temirkanov with the Royal Phil. on RCA, although that isn't to slight Abbado with the Chicago Sym. on Sony, who delivers one of the best performances in his complete cycle.
Sym. 2 "Little Russian" - B-/C+
This is the most folk-like of the early symphonies, several themes being direct adaptations of folk songs from the Ukraine (known under the Czar as "Little Russia"). My preference is for a robust, vigorous reading rather than a refined and polished one. Which puts me at odds with Gergiev's first movement, taken slowly and rather languidly. Similarly, the second movement, which is supposed to resemble a military march - it is marked 'marziale' - is inexplicably lazy-sounding. as much as I admire Gergiev, his recent tendency has been to over-refine his phrasing, as he does here. Unless the listener is captivated by the lovely playing of the LSO's woodwind soloists, it's likely that one's attention will wander.
The Scherzo is marked "very lively," and still Gergiev remains contained and restrained, polishing each phrase while losing a sense of exuberance overall. I'm holding him to a high standard; ion its own terms, this movement is played very well. The finale is structured along the same lines as the ending of Sym. 1, with a slow introduction and lively Allegro, although in this case the introduction is stately rather than moody and the fast part sprightly and scampering. Gergiev captures both sections very well, making this the most successful movement in a reading that frankly doesn't get off the ground until quite late, and even then there are droopy episodes as the finale progresses.
For a better choice there is Bernstein's excellent "Little Russian" with the NY Phil.on Sony and a classic Giulini on EMI that comes in rather dated sound, unfortunately. It's also worth going to the used market for an early Abbado reading (1968) on DG wit the Vienna Phil. that may be his best Tchaikovsky recording.
Sym. 3 "Polish" - B+/A-
For his third attempt at a symphony Tchaikovsky delivered an ambitious five-movement score that is more like a ballet suite than even the first two. Three of the movements come off as being in the same tempo, and few conductors are successful in making them feel different in pacing and mood. This is a pastel world of sleeping beauties and enchantment. To state my bias clearly, I find almost every reading of this work much of a muchness. Any conductor who can handle languorous melodies and delicate phrasing will achieve a nice result. Only Evgeny Svetlanov, in a blazing live reading on BBC Legends, finds the key to make the "Polish" wake up and come alive.
Gergiev falls safely in the top half of the best recordings I know. He finds some vigor in the long first movement, and he paces the second just differently enough so that we don't feel that it merely extends what has already been said. The ease and sweep of the orchestral playing are lovely. The third movement is a tranquil showcase for the LSO's solo woodwinds. The mercurial Scherzo could hardly be more delicate. Here Gergiev creates a complete ballet scene that could be inserted into the shadowy woodland as a prince searches for an elusive lover. Very much in keeping with the festive final section of Sleeping Beauty is the finale, which is meant to be "fiery." Svetlanov ignites it, and Gergiev comes close.
This Sym. 3 is recommendable for the solid interpretation but more so for the updated sound and fine playing. Only on those grounds does it marginally surpass Bernstein, Karajan, and Temirkanov, and even then these earlier rivals have first-rate playing.
To sum up, this set is a safe recommendation for anyone who wants all three early symphonies together, but as stand-alone performances, none but the "Polish" seems outstanding to me. I admit to being disappointed even as I grant that the overall musical quality is high.