A refreshing, unfussy Tchaikovsky symphony cycle from Australia

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Manfred Symphony

Oleg Caetani/Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (ABC Classics)

tchaik-caetani-msol-liveAs leafy Hampshire lay gripped by a Russian winter, it seemed only appropriate that a new box set of Tchaikovsky symphonies arrived for review. Perhaps a cycle from sunny ‘Down Under’ wasn’t to be expected, but a Russian link was maintained with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oleg Caetani, son of Igor Markevitch. These performances were recorded at concerts which paired the familiar late symphonies with the early ones, which are still something of a rarity in the concert-hall. The discs come in three double jewel-cases, each with a booklet. Caetani contributes his own brief notes alongside more detailed ones by other writers. The symphonies are presented numerically, so my journey began with the First, Winter Daydreams.

The conductor suggests that “reveries” is a more accurate translation of “griozy” and, as the Symphony was composed in the summer months, “Winter Reveries” as a title suggests a series of reminiscences. Caetani’s approach to this symphony is refreshing, akin to having a snowball shoved down your neck! His quick tempos are bracing, an icy chill blowing Daydreams on a Wintry Road along swiftly. This no-nonsense approach makes Land of Desolation, Land of Mist appear a little matter-of-fact, the oboe melody losing some of its wistful character. The finale employs a genuine Russian folk-song, The Garden Bloomed, in the introduction, which then reappears as the second subject, where Caetani catches its jaunty Cossack-dance feel well to shake the snow from your boots. The syncopated timpani strikes from 11’26” in the coda are very fine, leading to an exhilarating close.

No. 2, Little Russian, is less extreme, but Caetani is certainly not prone to lingering over the music. The rallentando in fig. K of the nervy Allegro vivo section is very slight (6’15”) and the Scherzo rattles along. Tchaikovsky didn’t really compose a slow movement for this Symphony (rather like Beethoven’s Eighth) and the perky little march (originally intended for his opera Undine) skips along. After a brief, imposing introduction, the skittish finale, based on a Ukrainian folk-song which gives the Symphony its nickname (Little Russia being an old title for Ukraine), is presented ad nauseam, but infectiously delivered.

Dance rhythms pervade the entire Third Symphony; the first movement’s brooding introduction, the courtly pomp of the Allegro and the second subject oboe melody at letter E (from 4’32”) could all be from Swan Lake, which Tchaikovsky was writing concurrently. Indeed, the only time I’ve heard the music for the Third played live was (minus the first movement) under the title “Diamonds” as the final part of George Balanchine’s ballet Jewels. Caetani points the dance elements strongly, particularly the whirring and chattering of the ghostly Scherzo, leading to the grand Polonaise of the finale, the epitome of Tchaikovsky’s Imperial style. Based on performances like this, one wonders why the Third does not tend to feature on concert programmes.

I found the performance of the Fourth a relative disappointment. The initial announcement of the fate motif is brusquely delivered, with little sense of imposing drama. The whole movement is dispatched rather too quickly, Caetani’s foot on the accelerator bringing it to an end in just 16 minutes flat. Curiously, this was the one movement to be recorded at a different venue; whatever the reasons for the first movement’s performance in Hamer Hall being rejected for CD issue, Caetani’s pressing forward here doesn’t convince. The Scherzo comes off better, the balalaika effects of the pizzicato strings contrasting well with the rustic peasant tune which develops. This, along with the presence of the tune In the Field Stood a Little Birch Tree in the finale, is a timely reminder of just how much use Tchaikovsky made of Russian folk-song and how the Fourth is closer, in many ways, to the early symphonies than the final three. Caetani’s finale doesn’t catch the helter-skelter or the jubilation of other favoured recordings (I’d have to mention Mravinsky here).

After the Fourth, I jumped to the end of the set for the Manfred Symphony. Why is it that Manfred gets tacked onto the end of cycles rather than presented, chronologically, after the Fourth? Pletnev’s performance isn’t even included in his set of symphonies, but is lumped together with the symphonic poems on a DG three-disc set. In contrast to my disappointment at his Fourth, Caetani presents a performance of Manfred which crackles with drama without pushing forward with undue haste. He catches the hysteria of the first movement quite brilliantly, followed by a suitably Mendelssohnian fairy Scherzo. The Allegro con fuoco finale plunges us back into the passion of the opening movement. This is a highlight of Caetani’s cycle and he makes as good a case for this symphony as on any complete set.

The Fifth Symphony is given an enjoyable reading. As I’d come to expect by now, Caetani isn’t one to hang around and ‘smell the roses’ in the opening movement but, whereas his quick tempo hampered the start of the Fourth, here it adds a frisson of Angst. He allows his horn player time to phrase the second movement melody lovingly and the Valse has a lilting character. The finale is taken more slowly than usual (nearly 13 minutes), but this rather adds to the sense of noble, stoic resolution. The Melbourne timpanist, who provides much satisfaction throughout this cycle, is tremendously caught in the dramatic roll leading to the coda (from 10’00”).

The Pathetique’s opening movement is pacy, without quite whipping up the passion required. The Finale is also quite speedy, without the same sense of tragedy other conductors might obtain. Caetani is more leisurely in the central movements, surprisingly so in the third, where the March lacks the last ounce of Allegro molto vivace the score calls for. Caetani does earn Brownie points for leading straight from the March into the finale, ensuring no intrusive applause breaks out. The Melbourne audience is remarkably well-behaved, it should be noted, waiting a good 12 seconds after the cellos and double basses fade away before breaking into an enthusiastic ovation.

So how does Caetani fare against other complete sets of the symphonies? For many years now, Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic have been a ‘safe’ recommendation, wonderfully recorded by Chandos and now available cheaply, although in most instances, you’ll find Caetani’s set at a lower price. Mikhail Pletnev’s cycle might not be the best library recommendation, as his idiosyncrasies may grate on repeated listening, but I really like what he does and the Russian National Orchestra is very fine, with the most characterful woodwind playing. Andrew Litton’s Bournemouth cycle should not be overlooked – a bargain from Virgin; his rubato and slow speeds in general can irritate at times, but the playing is admirable.

If you already own a complete cycle, would you want to invest in this Australian one? Well, if you want to be refreshed by swift, unfussy accounts, then possibly, particularly if the sparkle of the early symphonies appeals or if you’re in need of convincing that Manfred is as fine a symphony as the last three numbered ones. I’m very pleased to have made acquaintance with these discs over the past snowbound week and Caetani’s performances will certainly merit repeated listening once the thaw is long past.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/ Oleg Caetani (MSO Live – ABC Classics 476 6442)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons (Chandos) CHAN 8672/8 (1984-1986)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Andrew Litton (Virgin) 5 61893 2 (1988-1991)
Symphonies 1-6:
Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev (DG) 449 967-2 (1995)
Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev (DG) 477 053-2 (1993)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

This entry was posted in CD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.