by Anthony Kershaw
This is Gergiev’s second go round with Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies. A mid 2000s set with the Vienna Phil on Philips was well played, if not so well recorded. It didn’t do anything special for me at the time.
This new set, culled from live performances in Paris with his own Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, has a brilliant 4th and 6th, but a very weak 5th. The 5th was the most moribund of the Vienna set. Yet, this performance is far from moribund, it’s balletic. Unfortunately, the 5th is not a ballet. There are so many discrepancies from Tchaikovsky’s markings that it is simply an exercise in self indulgence. Well played indulgence, though.
The 4th Symphony and the 6th fare much, much better. I’d consider the performance of the 4th a front runner in the here and now, but always listening out for the greatest performance of this work from an orchestra from the same city, recorded many years ago in London for DGG — Mravinsky/Leningrad Philharmonic.
The wonderful performance of the 4th highlights the general improvement in Russian orchestral fortunes. There was a time during the mafiocracy that entire sections of Russian orchestras would decamp for better pay and better conditions elsewhere. Many provincial orchestras were being paid with tuna fish sandwiches, or whatever they add up to in kopecks!
Listen to the horn section in the opening fate theme of the 4th’s first movement. Glistening, in tune, no wobble, and following the to and fro of Gergiev’s whims. Superb. We all know the strings will be fine, but now the woodwinds are more homogeneous in sound (if not individual character) and the other sections of the brass play beautifully together, too.
Gergiev emphasizes the drama in both the 4th and the 6th while keeping to the composer’s specific marks of expression and tempos. He manages the sweep and majesty without reinventing the term ‘rubato’. The 6th is not quite as well played as the brilliant 4th, but it is still very fine. Both symphonies sound like a journey with all the underlying pathos and power that Tchaikovsky conjured at the height of his powers. The Fourth will thrill you and the 6th will drain you.
So, once again a mixed bag from the gregarious Gergiev. I noted on Twitter the other day that, at least on recordings, he hits home runs, smashing Howitzer home runs or strikes out miserably. There’s no Mr. In Between. Hits include his superlative Debussy with the LSO, his fabulous early Tchaikovsky Symphony set with the LSO, and this Mariinsky Tchaikovsky 4/6. Misses include much of his misguided Mahler with the LSO, a dreadful Philips Nutcracker with his home orchestra, and this wreck of a Tchaikovsky 5th.
His best live work recently was an incredible Pictures with the Berlin Philharmonic. Absolutely mesmerizing with a commitment from the orchestra that was powerful and profound. And, be sure to YouTube his Firebird with the Vienna Phil from Salzburg. Wow! But, on recordings, it’s with the LSO that he seems most assured. And, they have never sounded better. Interesting, then, that he’s quitting London for Munich in 2016 (the Philharmoniker). Since it’s an inferior orchestra, I’m assuming the pay raise is a whopper.
A note about this release. You can buy the set on Blu-ray but individually only on iTunes.