TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 2* & 3+ / London Philharmonic Orch.; Vladimir Jurowski, cond / LPO 0109 (live: London, *December 7, 2016 & +March 5, 2016)
The early Tchaikovsky symphonies are, as one critic cleverly put it, “better than they sound,” but they need a conductor who can pull the structure together to make them work. Vladimir Jurowski, a conductor I’ve admired since I heard his recording of Holst’s The Planets several years ago, is one of these.
In one sense, his approach is similar to that of the late Igor Markevitch, whose set of the six numbered symphonies (originally issued on the Philips label, now on Newton Classics) was considered the benchmark for years. But of course, other conductors did just as good if not a little better job in the last three: Yevgeny Svetlanov in the Fourth, Dimitri Mitropoulos in the Fifth, and Toscanini in the Sixth (two versions, one with the Philadelphia Orchestra and one with the NBC Symphony). Yet Jurowski clearly puts his own stamp on these works. They are even a bit brisker and have more forward momentum than the Markevitch recordings, fine as they are, and the modern digital sound is simply sparkling. He brings out a ton of detail in these works that you may never have noticed before, and the continual feeling of excitement will have you on the edge of your seat.
One feature in which Jurowski reminded me of Toscanini was his putting the winds to the fore of the sound profile, and giving them a “bite” that you seldom hear in the performances of those who favor a lush string sound (too many, alas). The famed first-movement theme of the “Little Russian” theme almost sounds like the march of the Russian army as it went forth to crush the Nazis in World War II. Little Russians, indeed! Every spot solo is beautifully phrased and played, and in certain sections Jurowski pulls back slightly on the tempo to impart a feeling of warmth.
But make no mistake: these performances are not designed to lull you to sleep in a cocoon of warm, Romantic goopiness. The7 are fiery, slashing readings of these works, so similar to Svetlanov’s great recording of the Fourth that they could well have been made by him. Those listeners who like to bask in such things had best stay away from these performances. Your local classical radio station would never play these recordings unless the show host who chose them was wired on caffeine.
Needless to say, Jurowski takes an identical approach to the “Polish” Symphony with equally bracing results. The ethnologically-minded listener will surely concede, even if he or she thinks the “Little Russian” symphony too fast, that his approach is certainly appropriate in this case, since Polish musical culture has always been more Western in feel and scope than the Russian. Interestingly, Jurowski takes the second movement at a more leisurely pace than Markevitch did, but makes up for it by playing the “Andantino elegiaco” at a quicker tempo that doesn’t allow the music to drag.
But, to be honest, the third symphony isn’t as interesting as the second. Even in the Scherzo, the music is repetitive and not very creative, although Jurowski does the best he can with it. The lack of sentiment and maudlin, distended tempi drive the music home to the finish line with alacrity and fervor. These are, quite simply, tremendous performances and my new favorites for these two works.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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