TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36; Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 – SWR Symphony Orchestra/ Hans Rosbaud – SWR Classic  SWR19062 (2 CDs) 42:29; 46:19 (6/8/18) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Rare indeed are the Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) interpretations of the music of Tchaikovsky that survive, so these documents of the Fourth Symphony (17 January 1957) and the Fifth Symphony (8 September 1954) hereby restored from the archives of SouthWest Radio Orchestra Baden-Baden mark a real occasion. Each of the symphonies embodies some notion of “fate” as Tchaikovsky conceived it, and each manages to suggest a titanic struggle in which the individual soul emerges triumphant despite the confrontation with tragic adversity.

It seems appropriate to suggest that Rosbaud’s approach to the first movement of the FourthAndante sostenuto ; Moderato con anima  – would suggest much of what Arturo Toscanini might have brought by dint of linear drive and taut control, had this music been to his taste (Toscanini favored only the Manfred Symphony and the Pathetique).  The phrasing of the fanfare motif and its subsequent appearances move with the lightning-bolt directness of the “model” in the Beethoven Fifth. The rhythmic impulse does not invite Rosbaud’s exaggerated rubato or manipulation of the (waltz) pulse, as we hear in Koussevitzky, Mengelberg and Bernstein.  Neither does Rosbaud indulge the melodic curve hyperbolically. But the energy and sweep of the drama proceed cleanly and clearly, passionate within restraints. The recapitulation and coda—in the tragic key of D minor with a modulation to F Major—emerge with blazing effect.

The intonation of Rosbaud’s forces remains immaculate, much to the benefit of the succeeding Andantino movement.  Here, the SWR Symphony winds, horns and low strings converge to create a towering realization of Russian folk tune raised to the level of a personal anthem. The SWR oboe, of course, holds court along with flute and French horn. The melancholy swagger of the main theme never devolves into sentimental molasses but retains a nobility rife with nostalgia.  The novel Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro third movement always stands as a display piece for the string sections’ discipline, here executed with alternately transparent, martial brio and fitful, swirling elan. Tchaikovsky adopted the Russian folk tune There Stood a Tiny Birch for his resplendent finale, opening with some harmonic audacity and evolving into another appearance of the “fate” motif. Between the kettle drums and the cymbals we have any number of whirlwinds of emotion, led by aroused wind and brass sections. If the leanness of the sonority qualifies as “German” the intrinsic Russian character of the music suffers no diminution of spirit.

Tchaikovsky Portrait

Peter Tchaikovsky

The 1888 Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky sustains its “fateful” character even more consistently than the Fourth.   Once the clarinets of the opening Andante – Allegro con anima announce their solemn procession, the music develops a martial, tempestuous momentum that suddenly cuts off to embrace a sad and lovely waltz theme. While Rosbaud’s passion for this music does not expand to the volatility of say, Mravinsky, the stern beauty of the occasion remains taut, sincere, and exquisitely balanced. The SWR trumpets and drums do not stint on musical power, and their intonation proves razor-sharp. We know the motto theme will interrupt the idyll of the second movement, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, setting a seal of doubt over the mood the French horn and oboe had tried to establish of spiritual respite.  

The third movement, Valse -Allegro moderato had its inspiration in the streets of Florence, Italy, the locale that would give later rise to the sextet of Op. 70.  This idyll, too, suffers the intrusion of the “fate” motif, casting a shadow up whatever tender sentiments had evolved. The Finale sets an ambiguous, perpetual duel between E minor and E Major, culminating in a verve-filled Russian trepak of often wild energy.  Happily, Rosbaud does not follow the unfortunate examples of Mengelberg and Sargent to opt for the cuts in this movement. The ensuing momentum that explodes into triumphal E Major rivals what we most enjoy in both Kossevitzky and Mravinsky, though without their native mania. The clarity and poise that Rosbaud brings shed its own light upon this familiar work, which has emerged with a resolve and dignity we always wanted for this music.

—Gary Lemco