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What happened here?
on 3 October 2012
I thought I was going deaf. I'd put the first disc in the player, listening to the SACD layer, and could barely hear anything. I cranked up the volume - a bit better. Raising the volume a lot, at last things are audible. Why such a low level? I've gradually accumulated a fair number of hybrid SACDs over the years but have never had to increase the playback level so much. But even at audible levels, the sound is dry and seems to sap the life out of the first two symphonies. I couldn't work out whether it was the orchestra, the conductor, the recording, or all three that took the enjoyment out of listening to these tuneful early symphonies of Tchaikovsky.
Just in case it was me, or my equipment, I immediately followed up by listening to the 1st symphony as recorded (also live) on the other side of the Thames by the L.P.O. under Jurowski on the LPO label. What a difference! The orchestral playing is superb, pointed woodwinds playing with character, the whole experience completely engaging, a band clearly enjoying itself. The sound quality is top class (you wouldn't know it was the Festival Hall), plenty of immediacy and space. The second symphony under Gergiev didn't do much for me either. Neither is a 'bad' performance, but there are so much better ones out there. This time I compared with Giulini's recording with the Philharmonia on EMI. Again the recording is far more immediate and open. And it was made in 1956! The performance is compelling, the orchestra on absolutely top form, playful woodwind, strings really biting, especially in the final movement, the whole thing rhythmically tight. Terrific.
The second disc improves somewhat. I enjoyed the performance of the third ('Polish') symphony very much. Everyone sounds more engaged, and the sound is more open and has more presence. I liked Gergiev's touch at the end of the third movement, almost playful. This was recorded in the Victoria Hall, Geneva although I wasn't aware of that at first hearing. And I must applaud the LSO's piccolo player who is a joy throughout these performances.
Lovers of the first three Tchaikovsky symphonies, like me, will want to hear these recordings. But if you are starting out, either get the recordings with the LSO under Markevitch on Philips (not the Newton Classics reissue), or, my personal favourites, combining elegance, excitement, and occasionally a little humour:
1st Symphony: USSR S.O./ Svetlanov (Melodiya); Boston S.O./ Tilson-Thomas (DG); LPO/ Jurowski (LPO)
2nd Symphony: Philharmonia Orchestra/ Giulini (EMI)
3rd Symphony: USSR S.O/ Svetlanov (live in Edinburgh, on BBC Legends)