* TCHAIKOVSKY : Symphony No. 1 Op. 13, “Winter Daydreams;” The Snow Maiden (excerpts) – Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/ Dmitri Kitajenko – Oehms multichannel SACD OC668 [Distr. by Naxos] 60:40 *****:
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), composer and conductor, wrote six numbered symphonies and another, a programmatic symphony entitled Manfred. Susceptible to severe bouts of depression, the composer’s views of his works altered with his mood. However, he did consider his first symphony one of his finer works, as he wrote in a letter to Nadhezda von Meck many years after its composition.
Having graduated from the newly-founded Moscow Conservatoire in 1865, Tchaikovsky began work the next year on his first symphony. He did not find writing it an easy exercise, nor was getting it performed without its trials. Movements were performed in isolation and much rewriting took place before its first complete, and well-received, performance in 1868. Extraordinary as it seems today, the second performance had to wait until 1883.
While not programmatic like Manfred, two of the first symphony’s movements have titles. The work opens with Dreams of a Winter Journey – Allegro tranquillo and occasionally paints a picture of a sleigh ride with dance motifs. Kitajenko’s steady pace allows detail to shine through and the relative tempi are carefully chosen for successful contrast. The second movement, Land of Desolation, Land of Mists – Adagio cantabile ma non tanto has a particularly lovely melody for solo oboe, echoed by other woodwind, a yearning song so well put across by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln players.
The Scherzo is gossamer-light, the orchestra on its toes and the three-quarter time trio is a portent of things to come in the composer’s works. The big bold final movement, Andante lugubre – Allegro maestoso, makes use of a Russian folk-tune and, with a big nod to Austro-German tradition, involves a rather wonderful fugue, complete with a battery of percussion. Kitajenko allows the fuse to burn slowly, building up the tension to well-judged climaxes.
The performance as recorded in the Philharmonic, Cologne presents the sound from fifteen or so rows back with a natural concert-hall perspective. Some may feel Kitajenko’s tempi throughout the work somewhat on the slow side, others that this gives time for the music to evolve and the sound to expand. As in other releases in this series, Kitajenko allows the music to breathe, and I have found this increasingly impressive on repeated listening. For the finely played excerpts from The Snow Maiden, the orchestra was recorded in a studio with excellent results, too. The symphony seems to derive from more than one performance and apart from very quiet rustling between the movements, the audience is not noticeable.
Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies haven’t been performed as often as his last three but have appeared on record in several first-class releases. Herbert von Karajan, who never performed these live, recorded the three very successfully in Berlin, Igor Markevitch’s London SO cycle bears up very well indeed after getting on for fifth years and, certainly in my collection, Michael Tilson Thomas’s very early recording for DGG with the Boston Symphony still demands affection.
On SACD Neeme Järvi’s recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra sounds less grand and more fleet of foot, a more balletic approach to the work. Järvi takes one to two minutes less time per movement, offers one more item in Snow Maiden set, and adds Romeo and Juliet to boot. Yet, I feel Kitajenko allows the symphony to sound a greater work than Järvi does. Pletnev on PentaTone’s Dali-like distortions of tempo especially in the first movement jarred. There are three more SACDs of the work on the Exton label available as expensive imports, and, finally, a brand-new release from LSO Live at budget price, Valery Gergiev offering the first three symphonies on a pair of discs. Gergiev’s is a very fine reading, taking even more time over the slow movement than Kitajenko, and he has a clear view of the work’s architecture. A few localised emphases made me raise my eyebrows – Andrew Marriner’s unexpected tenutos in the first movement – but that said, this, too, is a reading on a grand scale. Gergiev is also recorded very well in the Barbican’s difficult acoustics, but good as LSO Live’s sonics are, the results from Cologne’s Philharmonie are in comparison quite superb.
Those looking for a recording of Tchaikovsky’s First in a performance of breadth and depth should investigate this rewarding and intensely musical new release.
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