TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4; The Nutcracker Ballet: Scenes from Act I – Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./William Steinberg/Royal Philharmonic /Artur Rodzinski – HDTT

by | Mar 29, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; The Nutcracker Ballet, Op. 71: Scenes from Act I – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Artur Rodzinski (Nutcracker) – HDTT HDCD 221, 58:40 [avail. in various formats incl. hi-res at] ****:
William Steinberg (1898-1978) does not often rate high among the cognoscenti of orchestral conductors, except to those connoisseurs who know consistently high standards when they hear them. A conductor trained under Hermann Abendroth and well-versed in piano and violin repertory, Steinberg not only helped evolve the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but he raised the standards for the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the United States, eventually assuming the post in Boston, but unfortunately at a late date when Steinberg’s health had already been compromised.
The 1878 Tchaikovsky F Minor Symphony (from a 1961 Command Classic LP) imbibes both breadth and lyricism under Steinberg, on a par with those fleetly moving performances from Cantelli and Beecham. The “fate ” motif in A-flat unison octaves in horns and bassoons receives ample space as it makes its various permutations of form and dynamics. The waltz figure in 9/8 offers adequate consolation, but Steinberg keeps the dire tread in taut relief, finally letting it reach a fiery apotheosis in the Koussevitzky tradition. The vocal qualities of the B-flat Minor Andantino are well documented, and Steinberg’s oboe solo, followed by impassioned strings, achieves a girth resonant with Russian doxology emanating from the Russian soil. The militant middle section enjoys that quasi-fierce “wind-sound” from the cellos and middle strings that utters as much resignation as national pride.  The da capo adds a distinct flute’s voice to the procession, but it brings little mirth, only a benevolent melancholy.
String virtuosity at its highest appears in the extended pizzicato motif for the third movement, complemented by an equally demonic part for the piccolo. The A Major Trio seems both balletic and martial, the winds, strings, and brass coordinated in distinctly blazing fashion.  A direct attack into the Finale, whose main theme derives from a folk song again rooted in the soil: “In the Field stood a Birch Tree.” Here, the battery–especially cymbals and triangle–add to the festive colors, the crescendi taking their cue from a combination of Rossini and Beethoven. Two groups of five variations appear, connected by a kind of invocation and response. The folkish whirlwind mounts ineluctably, only to advance the Fate motif from the first movement in full fury, with its resultant melancholy. At last, the tympani and horns reawaken us for the gripping coda, whose upward scales and horn and wind stretti propel us to an abyss which is at once a maelstrom and a consummation, a peroration in which Steinberg has total control.
Artur Rodzinski (1892-1958) inscribed the Nutcracker for Westminster Records in 1956, leading Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic who, for contractual reasons, took on a pseudonym. Although Beecham himself gave us excerpts for CBS (ML 5171), Rodzinski here tours the First Act, from the ingenuous Overture through the arrival of Herr Drosselmeyer and the Distribution of the Christmas Gifts. The wonderful woodwind pedal points and harp runs for the Christmas Tree quite secure the ritual in the Good Earth, while the strings and bouncing woodwinds ensure the suspenseful magic of the occasion. The Children’s March moves as though the youngsters themselves were part crusaders. The rushing figures adumbrate the later Battle with the Mouse King. The spirit of Robert Schuman seems no less nigh, as the various dances incorporate and embellish a few select motifs of that master that culminate in a blazing trepak. The RPO bassoon work proves exemplary, the characterization obviously inspiring Prokofiev when it came to scoring Peter and the Wolf.
NB: The HDTT banding mistakenly accounts for only 5 tracks, but the Symphony and Nutcracker excerpts indeed register 9 tracks: 5-3:24; 6-4:04; 7-2:08; 8-2:29; 9-5:31
— Gary Lemco

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