TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya – London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Noseda – LSO SACD LSO 0858 (10/21/22) (66:41) [Distr. by PIAS] ****
Recorded 3 and 28 November 2019, these two Russian works embody the two sides of much of the symphonic genre, the German tendency in Tchaikovsky to realize learned, “absolute” forms and counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s penchant for Russian folklore and fairy-tale myth, rife with oriental magic. The two scores highlight that exquisite conflict between Western and Eastern influences. There exists an excellent level of orchestral definition in both renditions, though the Tchaikovsky 1888 Fifth Symphony, so well familiar to us through classic, even epic, interpretations from Mravinsky, Koussevitzky, Stokowski, fails to achieve anything beyond a perfectly competent impression. The notion of “Fate” as conceived in the music’s opening motto and subsequent appearances, has, from Noseda, a glibness and linear phraseology that resists anything monumental in stature.
This is not to say the playing from the LSO lacks warmth or clarity of line. The defining voices of the second movement Andante cantabile, stated from the woodwinds and strings, project a sincerity of expression, direct and without inflated pomp. But the matter-of-factness in the evolution of the themes and its contrasting middle section lacks the thrill of dramatic impact. The brass section, indeed, possesses a luster that well warrants admiration for its homogeneity of tone. The virtues, then, amount to those of articulate, technical execution and finesse of ensemble, thoroughly musical but without that exquisite and excruciating conflict that raises the occasion to Homeric status.
The third movement Valse passed by so smoothly it left only a sweet ghost of an impression. The final movement, happily, does not receive the dreadful cut the composer’s brother authorized, that Mengelberg and Sargent obeyed, much to my personal chagrin, having spoiled two otherwise potent readings. Noseda, however, true to form, moves this music brisky and precisely, its color panoply intact, the metrics preserved. At moments, the momentum becomes almost sluggish rather than divinely manic, as can be its wont when urged by a conductor possessed. The acoustics of the Barbican Hall, London, resonate with the fine unanimity of the ensemble, here obedient to a pedestrian vision that refuses to break the chains of exact discipline.
My superlatives have had to wait for Noseda’s reading of the 1907 folk-opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, whose pantheism relishes the evocative harmonies and orchestral colors: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, with its obvious debts to Wagner, especially his “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried and the “Magic Fire Music” from Die Walküre. These Wagner allusions appear equally strong in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music for The Tsar Saltan, Op. 57.
Though Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony recorded the third scene from the suite, “The Battle of Kershenets,” in a rousing, galloping 1937 performance, Koussevitzky missed a grand opportunity – of which Noseda takes full advantage – to highlight his orchestra’s polished sheen in the opening scene, “Prelude: Hymn to Nature,” which provides us with one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most exquisite melodies. Fevroniva meets Prince Vsevolod in the forest, rife with birdcalls and bucolic wonder. The wedding procession from Act II imitates balalaikas in the impressive string work from the LSO, also graced by a harp-assisted melody of immediate beauty. When Vsevolod is murdered by invading Tatars, we engage in “The Battle of Kershenets.” In the final, extended scene, Fevroniva has prayed for the city of Kitezh to be rendered invisible, only reflected in the waters of a nearby lake. The Tatars flee, and Fevroniva approaches her death surrounded by wavering chords from Wagner, enhanced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s individual color gifts. The chromatic hues invoked in this apotheosis derive from late Wagner, even as they prefigure Richard Strauss. The music, happily, recounts the opening Hymn and its unforgettable melody, now ornamented and elaborated in muted figures and pizzicatos. The carillon effects, now in counterpoint with the rising, chordal melody, carry us to divine spectacle of Prince and Princess having been reunited in an idealized City of Kitezh.
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