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Customer Review

47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars TESTAMENT, 14 May 2006
This review is from: Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos.4, 5 & 6 "Pathetique" (DG The Originals) (Audio CD)
Shaw once said loftily that Tchaikovsky has a thoroughly Byronic ability to be intensely tragic about nothing much. Without going quite so far, I'd certainly agree that a certain sepulchral tone and a propensity to whip up frantic emotion come to him easily. I don't think I ever heard the start of the 5th symphony expressed with quite such cavernous gloom as it is on this set nor the frenzy more frenzied, and that is exactly how I like it all done.

This set dates from 1960, the height of the cold war, and at that time Mravinsky had been very little heard in what we used to call 'the west'. It was a period when western critics were inclined to favour a smoothed-over play-safe school of interpretation of the musical classics. This had something to be said for it as a reaction against the libertarian excesses of some previous schools, but it descended into a facile mediocrity based to all intents and purposes on checklists and box-ticking, reaching its nadir in the 70's and 80's when the main aesthetic preoccupation in many commentaries was the issue of how many repeats had been observed. Myself, I am thoroughly in favour of professionalism from professional musicians, but on the other hand I don't find checklists a very illuminating guide through the gardens of the muses. It also seemed to me that our ideas of how to play Tchaikovsky were probably too influenced by our ideas of the Viennese classics, and the advent of Mravinsky in London came none to soon.

It was enlightening to me to compare Mravinsky's account of the 4th symphony with a fine modern version from Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. On the checklist approach Abbado does very well indeed. I don't impugn the professionalism of the Leningrad orchestra in any way when I suggest that they are not quite the equal technically of the Vienna players, something I noticed particularly in the pizzicato effects in the third movement. However when it came to the question which interpretation had the greater individuality and sense for the composer's idiom, the answer was not long in coming. Put simply, Mravinsky's performance is an event, and Abbado's, by comparison, is not. This is not a matter of taking undue liberties with the tempo. The 4th symphony does not call for that, and Mravinsky deploys only a very normal ebb and flow. The tone-quality has more to do with it, and I find myself bewitched by the penetrating sound of the Leningrad woodwind and brass, but most of all it's a matter of the expression. A great interpretation of Tchaikovsky must put across a sense of neurosis without losing control. Quite apart from the tragedy, gloom and semi-hysteria there must be a tense and nervy feel to the gaiety, and the lyric sections should seem like balm on wounds, and these are the senses I get uniquely from Mravinsky.

When it comes to the 5th , the liner-note has some fairly superficial and noncommittal remarks about freedom of tempo and 'authenticity'. The issue here seems to me to be that Tchaikovsky is trying to achieve something more distinct than before from the Viennese style. The tightly integrated structure of a first movement at which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were so adept was not his natural style, and he lacked their mastery in varying the lengths of musical phrases. His first movement is more a succession of short episodes, and without labouring the question of authenticity I'd say that the sense of the music demands a certain amount of flexilibity, although this composer does not micro-specify the details in the way Mahler does. As a comparison from a different standpoint I played my version from Celibadache. By contrast Mravinsky sounds the soul of 'correctness', notably in the first movement where Celibadache starts the allegro at a funereal pace, getting much faster a little later. I don't recommend it as any model, but it has the feel of real Tchaikovsky to me, and I prefer it to any 10 spick-and-span western versions. So does Mravinsky, and I appreciate the comment in the liner that he shows some of the virtues of Toscanini and of Fuertwaengler combined.

With the 6th Tchaikovsky has finally got his formula right. Instead of a seamless Viennese first movement he writes great separate blocks of music, and Mravinsky plays the effect up with long pauses between them. In the finale he abandons 'cyclic form', which doesn't amount to a form but is just a matter of bringing back themes from earlier movements in the finale. Brahms's 3rd shows how the thing can be done, but late romantic symphonists in general are not such musical aristocrats as Brahms. The device is something I learned to dread. Dvorak uses it, but not in his best works, it lets down even so great a composition as Franck's symphony, and in Tchaikovsky's 5th the matter is carried to such excess that it takes Mravinsky or Celibadache to make it tolerable to me. The 6th leaves all that behind, and I never heard a performance to equal this. I recall some comment many years ago to the effect that this 1960 stereo version is not the equal of his 1956 epoch-maker in mono, but I own both and I find little to choose.

This set, for me, is what Tchaikovsky is all about. The orchestral discipline is total, the sound is thrilling (compare Mravinsky at the start of any of these symphonies with anyone you like), this that and the next detail is better than in any other version, but it's the overall sense of communication of the personality of Russia's greatest composer that grips me. The question that the liner poses in its last paragraph is a false antithesis. The 6th shows Tchaikovsky at the height of his powers and is also a suicide note. Blackmail can never have had so eloquent an outcome.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 May 2010 09:22:07 BDT
JOHN GRANT says:
I would remind Mr Bryson that it was Abbado that said the VPO couldn't play Tchaikovsky because their bowing arm was too long.
They were not technically superior to Leningrad but just different. The Russians had a vibrant, exciting timbre and Mravinsky was a master at extracting the right sound, he wasn't interested in smoothness of line and beauty of tone for its own sake, just listen to his searing Shosakovich 8th. I recently heard live the Tchaikovsky 5th with Gergiev and the Vienna PO and it was boringly played and unexciting. Not the right orchestra at all.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 May 2010 09:57:55 BDT
DAVID BRYSON says:
Thankyou for your input.

Posted on 9 May 2011 10:11:29 BDT
R. Allen says:
David - Although I knew of Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony as a teenager, I had never heard its music at all until that dreadful Tuesday night in October 1962 when I sat
with a dozen or so friends in a flat in Earl's Court, half expecting to be incinerated at any moment. Someone said 'let's have some music; here's a recent release of Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony.' He then put on that Mravinsky recording with that gloriously interpreted - as you state - gloomy opening. It so fitted the mood of that moment! No one knew just then what the Kremlin was planning; it had been quiet for a couple of days and to us felt like an aggrieved giant quietly and frighteningly considering something. And here was one of its orchestras delivering that very essence of melancholy to (mine at any rate) terrified ears. Bernard Shaw, like so many who misunderstand Tchaikovsky (something which never seems to inhibit ventilation of their opinion) - completely misses the intellectual expression of that composer. He might as well confine his judgements to Harry Lauder. PS. I subsequently met Valery Bezhrochenko (apologies for possible misspelling), the principal clarinet of the Leningrad PO who helped deliver that opening. A charming, slightly nervous man who told me that his clarinets were pre-war Viennese models.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 May 2011 14:11:32 BDT
DAVID BRYSON says:
I remember the Cuba crisis too, and I remember going to bed suspecting I would never waken. Well, here we are 50 years on. Anthony Holden's fine biography of Tchaikovsky makes a similar plea to your own for greater recognition of the intellectual mastery in Tchaik. To be fair to Shaw, I don't think he disputed that either.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jan 2016 23:28:42 GMT
P Mck says:
Love the Mravinsky Tchaikovsky. How I remember going to school and not knowing if it was the last day of earth. My son doesn't believe it was that bad.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2016 09:57:00 GMT
DAVID BRYSON says:
Well, I and n million others have survived to be grandparents, so here's wishing the same for our grandchildren.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2016 10:33:48 GMT
P Mck says:
Yes indeed. My daughter has 2 wonderful children!

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2016 10:48:37 GMT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jan 2016 10:49:28 GMT
R. Allen says:
A fascinating postscript that emerged many years later is that, Nikita Khrushchev (the Russian leader who bombastically kicked up all the trouble) was taken completely off guard by the American president's sudden standing up to him. He had, from the Soviet homeland. virtually no means of inflicting any nuclear strike on the United States. On the other hand dozens of American B52 nuclear armed bombers were criss crossing the Atlantic and waiting to go in. Nikita's famous and oft trumpeted threat at the UN that 'we will bury you' was no more than Russian BS, or should I say 'govno iz bik'. It gave us plenty of govno though at the time.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2016 14:15:31 GMT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jan 2016 14:15:54 GMT
JJA Kiefte says:
Having been born in 1963 I do not of course have all these memories, but as a Dutch teacher of English I take an avid interest in British and American history. As coincidence has it, in my lessons I'm dealing with the Cuban crisis at the moment. I was unsure whether I needed another account of Tchaikovsky's Big Three, but after reading your comments I will certainly add the Mravinsky set to my collection (and, if you'll permit me, I will use your stories in my lessons).

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2016 14:47:04 GMT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jan 2016 17:34:06 GMT
R. Allen says:
Please feel free, Sir, to use my texts! On that awful night, the streets outside were quite deserted as everyone was waiting for something to happen although they could not know what. Yes, that incredibly beautiful opening of the symphony carried all the mood of that moment all right. As to any news, there was nothing but silence out of Moscow. That silence alone was terrifying. We had nothing to hang our hat on as to what the mysterious and secretive Russians were planning next. If only they had said something - any word of protest, complaint, anything! You can get a fix on that.
But for two days it was just silence. It was only long afterwards that I found out that the Russians had found themselves in frightening uncharted territory and were going through as much terror as we were. Their headstrong and bombastic leader had taken them into the jaws of a powerful enemy that looked as if, for a change, he intended acting.
And many years later, a Russian who had lived in Moscow at the time told me that mass evacuations were under way there as the authorities were panicking to get people out of the city before it was wiped out. The Russian people were told, apparently, that the aggressive imperialists were planning an unprovoked attack on them. What was not reported (of course) was that almost all members of the Kremlin politbureau vehemently objected to their leader's adventurism in Cuba. But in those days members took care not to fall foul of leaders who had been trained under the shadow of Stalin. Early morning knocks on the door and arrest were still alive and kicking in those days. by It's also terrible that, after Khrushchev had wisely defused the crisis, the 'revered' Fidel Castro taunted him badly, saying that he had no balls in not attacking the USA while he had the chance.
In hindsight, Nikita Khrushchev was a dangerous man (Castro too seemingly), highly intelligent but poorly educated, fully used to getting his own way on the long climb from peasant labourer to world leader by the use of bullyboy tactics. He had now, no doubt out of life long successful habit, tried those techniques again on President Kennedy.
Terrifyingly it all backfired and this time Nikita - and the rest of us with him - nearly came very badly unstuck indeed.

Amazing how Mravinsky's recording of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony has led to this complete digression!
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