43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
THE REAL RUSSIAN SOUND,
This review is from: Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos.4, 5 & 6 "Pathetique" (Audio CD)
I have to admit to not being one of Tchaikovsky's greatest fans. It is one of those deadspots in one's love of music that I've no doubt is my loss. A master melodist, certainly. But I find him too repetitious; all that interminable sequencing seems more of a nervous habit than a genuine means of musical expression; and, yes, he does wear his highly Romantic heart on a sleeve that seems a little threadbare on real musical content for a symphonist. So a recording has to go some to capture my attention, never mind my affection.
These recordings certainly go some. And then some more. You'd be hard-pushed to find performances of anything that maintain such a white-hot level of intensity throughout three fairly long symphonies.
When Mravinsky brought the Leningrad Philharmonic to the West in 1956, both conductor and orchestra were a pretty unknown quantity. It was the height of the Cold War and, while a reputation preceded them, no-one was quite sure what to expect. Mravinsky and his assistant, Kurt Sanderling, shared the conducting of these last three Tchaikovsky symphonies and recorded them in mono then. Many listeners prefer those recordings to these stereo remakes of 4 years later. Personally, I prefer the later versions. It's good sound for its period, if slightly edgy in a way that suits the Leningrad sound well. It's in stereo. And you get Mravinsky in all three symphonies.
He is a master of this Russian repertoire - making it sound and feel very Russian indeed. He is certainly not afraid of bending and shaping things to his individual view of the works. There is usually a fairly heavy foot on the brake before lyrical second subjects. There is an impetuosity about faster movements that often requires modifications of tempo later on. Rubato is frequent, often indulgent, but never wilful - it's always used to clarify texture, to give a melody it's full weight or to emphasise structure (where there is structure rather than just a succession of events!). The brass fanfares of the very opening of the Fourth Symphony will have you on the edge of your seat and you will likely stay there for the rest of the 2-disc set. The pizzicato Scherzo has real style and panache. And the Finale sets off at an absolutely electrifying zip - a zip which it maintains right through to the end. And so it goes on through all these symphonies. The Pathetique in particular comes across as a real symphony rather than a wallow in Russian morbidity. There is huge power in the march. And the Finale plumbs true depths. Make no mistake: these are very special performances.
Mravinsky had the reputation of being a dictator in front of an orchestra. Certainly the sound that he elicited from his Leningraders was very distinctive. Compared to the homogeneity of sound that we get from today's international, jet-setting orchestras where they all sound like clones of each other, it is sad to see the passing of these `national' schools of orchestral timbre. The Leningrad Philharmonic in those days boasted strong, virile yet warm string playing, a distinctively edgy tone to the woodwind that is excellent for penetrating dense orchestra textures (perhaps their instruments were less than the best and the lack of top-quality reeds in the Soviet Union may have had something to do with it, too), a certain stridency in the trumpet section and that totally unique Slav sound in the horns - lots of vibrato, slightly wobbly even, but based, they said, on the human voice. They all play like demons for their long-term conductor. These are thrilling, moving, cogent, committed ensemble performances, all three. And, while I don't yet count myself a complete convert to the Tchaikovsky cause, I'm certainly ready to proselytise on behalf of exceptional music-making like this.