There's a brisk trade in early Abbado recordings, and the only reason that this one sells so cheaply, I imagine, is that Amazon's search engine makes it hard to find. The "Little Russian" from 1968 was done at the vry outset of Abbado's recording career, albeit he was already 35. The Fourth Sym. dates from 1976. His contemporary Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Phil. is a dud, but this Fourth is strikingly full of energy and vibrancy. The first movement is swift at 18 min. and carries almost no tragic weight -- it's more like Liszt in its histrionic exuberance.
The orchestra plays with enthusiasm, giving no hint that they might be bored with such thrice-familiar music. The quick pace helps, and it continues into the second movement, to which the old-fashioned whiny Viennese oboe adds a spicy flavor. We are at a far remove from Bernstein's portentous way with this symphony, but the world has room for both approaches. The Vienna Phil. has had its ups and downs over the decades, but the string section has remained incomparable, as they display in a thrillingly unified Scherzo, where the unison pizzicatos are perfection. I like the fact that Abbado doesn't take the finale at breakneck speed; his pacing allows a little breathing room. Still, an overall timing of 41 min. is one of the fastest on records, a full 7 min. quicker than Bernstein on DG.
You can get Abbado's last three Tchaikovsky symphonies on a bargain two-fer from DG, but I think this CD is the only way to get his "Little Russian." There are unique problems in holding together this sprawling early work without allowing it to dissipate into a ballet suite, or a series of disconnected episdoes, and the finale needs to be grand without sounding grandiose. The score is tricky enough that I know of few truly successful recordings. Giulini did very well with the Philharmonia just a few years before this recording; perhaps the musicians remember it from him, because the first movement, so often a letdown, is energized and exciting in both recordings. Abbado is a bit lower in voltage, however.
The march in the second movement is marked "martial" (marziale) in character, but it's toy soldiers on parade, as in the Nutcracker. Abbado captures the movement's simplicity and its hints of melancholy nicely. The Scherzo is bouncy and balletic, with sprightly woodwinds -- one could hardly ask for beter, especially because the equally fine Giulini on EMI comes in very sketchy sound compared to this recording. Tchaikovsky tells the conductor nto to slow down for the Trio, and Abbado scrupulously obeys; not everyone else does. To top off a superb erformance, Abbado catches the grand swagger of the finale without making it sound grandiloquent.
What rivals does he have in the "Little Russian"? Mravinsky never recorded the work to my knowledge, nor has Gergiev to date, but among the usual Russian suspects, Svetlanov would be fiery enough except that in his several recordings he takes a perversely slow tempo in the second movement. Dorati and Markevitch have their staunch fans. Bernstein is very good with the NY Phil., and there's the aforementioned Giulini. Among complete sets Abbado from Chicago, Mehta from New York, Muti from London, Temirkanov, also from London, and Karajan on his two sets for EMI and DG all fall considerably short of the present CD. So despite the trouble, it's worth seeking out.
P.S. - It happened that I posted my review on the same day as Mr. VanDeDande, who found Abbado's remake of the "Little Russian" with the Chicago Sym. "hair raising" and a "big improvement" over his first try. I relistened to both recordings in case I missed something. The later recording on Sony is no great shakes technically, but is has a bigger soundstage. The timpani sound is actually clearer on the earlier DG. Tempos are the same, sometimes down to a second or two. the two readings aren't easy to tell apart, but I stand by my claim that the earlier account is fresher. In any case, no big improvement is perceivable.