Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian)
Symphony No.3 in D, Op.29 (Polish)
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 18 & 23 January 2011 (No.1), 23-24 March 2011 (No.2) in Barbican Hall, London, and 20 May 2011 (No.3) in Tonhalle, Zurich
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0710 (2 SACDs) Duration: 2 hours 6 minutes Reviewed: December 2012
LSO Live – Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1, 2 & 3/Valery Gergiev
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies are highly attractive works, rich in melodic invention and showing a young composer’s confidence in symphonic form. Here they are presented as part of a symphony cycle (albeit excluding Manfred) undertaken by Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2011, from whose concerts the recordings are taken – although for the ‘Polish’ a concert in the Zurich Tonhalle is the origin.
It is the ‘Polish’ – so called, not by the composer, for its Polonaise finale rather than any explicit references to the country – that receives the most striking performance. Gergiev clearly rates this work, and his reading makes perfect sense of the five-movement structure. The feather-light introduction is beautifully done, illustrating the germination of Tchaikovsky’s ideas, but when the main Allegro theme appears, just past 3’40”, Gergiev keeps its rhythmic contours surprisingly smooth. Only when it appears as a tutti are the dotted notes more pronounced. There is a conviction to both scherzos that has one eye on the stage, with persuasive rhythms and an attractive lilt to the first in particular, with the second more driven. Meanwhile in the Andante there is a depth of feeling rarely experienced in this music, with longing and affectionate playing, particularly the violins in unison. The best is saved until last, however, with a terrific drive to the finish that sweeps all before it, not least in the fugal writing, where energy and intensity are white hot.
‘Winter Daydreams’, Tchaikovsky’s own title for his First Symphony, accurately describes the first two movements of a work that draws on the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but which finds its distinctive voice early one. The first movement also bears the symphony’s nickname, while the second movement’s titling of ‘Land of gloom, Land of mists’, finds Gergiev responding with appropriately. After the glassy textures of the scherzo, which could arguably have more spring in its step though features a lovely clarinet solo from Andrew Marriner, Gergiev again saves the real drama for the finale, teasing out the references to previous movements while keeping a real sense of cut and thrust until the end, despite a slightly hurried fugal subject.
Gergiev’s way with the home-grown – Ukrainian – themes of the ‘Little Russian’ is totally persuasive. The strings are extremely incisive in response to his demands, taking hold of the first movement with relish, while the pinpricks of timpani strikes with which the Andantino begins are striking, the following textures beautifully lucid. In the oft-criticised finale Gergiev manages to make each appearance of the nagging theme feel totally natural and inevitable, and the movement ends with a real punch.
In Gergiev’s hands, none of these three fine symphonies are ‘problem’ works – rather they are adorable pieces of individuality and distinction that receive the strongest possible advocacy. Gergiev and the LSO celebrate the continuous flow of melody, the descriptive writing and the slow movements’ considerable emotion.