TCHAIKOVSKY: Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3 in G Major, Op. 55; Chant sans paroles in F Major; Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 – London Symphony Orchestra/The New Symphony Orchestra (E Minor Symphony)/Landon Ronald
Historic-Recordings HRCD 0005, 68:20 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] ****:
Commonly stereotyped by his recording history as an “accompanist” conductor, Sir Landon Ronald (nee Russell, 1873-1938) finds wonderful “vindication” in these restored shellacs, made 1928-1929, by Bill Anderson. These fine Tchaikovsky inscriptions do not belie the judgment of one English critic who said of Ronald, “Until Ronald, Artur Nikisch had been music’s finest accompanist.” A fine Elgar champion, Ronald had the ill-fortune to have been contracted by the same company that employed Elgar to lead his own music, leaving us only the 1935 Coronation March as testimony to a natural sympathy between these two musicians.
From the first statement of Tchaikovsky’s theme from Op. 55 (3 December 1929), the easy sway and melodic contour of the entire set of twelve variations presents itself to us, the consistent crackle in the original shellacs quickly relegated to white noise. The national or folk character of the individual variations sallies forth with every kind of verve, velocity, and polish, the LSO extremely competent and sonically virile. We come soon enough to the “English” variation, the English horn over hushed tremolo strings, yet the melody enjoys a wisp of Russian soul. Follows a rollicking mazurka or trepak, which heads vigorously into the unnamed violin solo in balletic figures over twittering woodwinds and string pizzicato. Nice bassoon and clarinet work. The ensuing “chorale” variation enjoys a loving hand and a leisurely exposition. Ronald well prepares for the grand imperial polonaise that concludes this colorful opus, the horns and chromatic strings leaping and stamping impatiently to rear into something like a cavalry charge of 6/8 figures. A scene from The Sleeping Beauty seems imminent, the trumpets constantly moving in thrilling motion. When the big melody comes (at a rather obvious side-splice), it projects youth, nobility, and clean arched lines. The coda virtually sizzles, making it impossible not to conduct right along. If I had to close my eyes and name the conductor, I’d have ventured Constant Lambert, so energized is this excellent rendition.
The little F Major Song Without Words (3 December 1929) moves rather like a gavotte in lovely colors of strings, winds, and harp. The perfect salon piece, it aligns Tchaikovsky to the French taste that provided his musical home when he was not occupied in rebuilding his Russian character along German models.
Given the glut of E Minor Symphony recordings, past and present, it comes as a shock to find a Fifth Symphony (18-19 April 1928) that does not die of its own clichés. Ronald plays the full version of the last movement; no cuts in the manner of Mengelberg and Sargent that ruin otherwise inspired tours of this music’s pageant from solemnity to spiritual victory. Rather Germanic in tone, Ronald’s shape of the first movement does adjust nicely to the waltz-figures that run concurrent with the martial, “Fate” motif. The occasional subito diminuendo makes rather telling points throughout this realization. Good tension through the plucked string section with oboes takes us to the big melody, rubato, a noble, patient waltz in glowing colors that does not dawdle or preen itself. The reading, in effect, strikes me as quite “modern,” eschewing much 19th century excess yet indulging the sensibilities if not the sentimentalities. Good woodwind definition allows us to hear the motto-rhythm both high and low, as the music drives to a minor apocalypse. The recap continues the inexorable energy up to the groaning coda, the brilliance certainly competitive with what Stokowski was accomplishing in Tchaikovsky in Philadelphia.
Ronald’s approach to the D Major Andante proceeds carefully patiently and intimately, taking full advantage of the composer’s directive to apply rhythmic license. Both cantilena and march, the music exploits its now-familiar melos with unsentimental authority, Ronald again judiciously applying the subito diminuendo or slight portamento to intensify his effect. Solid work from the low strings, the cellos and basses. Glinka’s inspirational air, “Turn not towards sorrow,” gains a resigned vigor that consoles the broken heart, especially when the meter shifts into martial filigree. The most “dated” of the four movements comes in the A Major Valse, taken much in Romantic parlance, with slides and liberal understanding of waltz-tempo. Still, the natural spontaneity and sincerity of the performance carries the often fluttery music to the commanding finale.
Having cut my own musical teeth on the Tchaikovsky Fifth of Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and Mravinsky, a portentous opening statement from Ronald’s forces seemed perfectly in order. What threw me is the level of articulation and deft phrasing from this performance, the orchestral discipline that allows Ronald to throw caution aside and revel in passionate throes of E Major-E Minor-E Major that mark the composer’s spiritual conquest of his own nagging doubts. Once the tympani roll introduces the Allegro vivace section, hang onto your hat. Blistering attacks in the trumpets and French horns, excellent phraseology from the strings and clarinets, all conspire to quite sweep away the years of this resuscitated performance, a revelation on its own terms.
Now, will Mr. Anderson and colleagues consider reissuing the aforementioned Constant Lambert’s own rendition of this same Tchaikovsky symphony?
— Gary Lemco