Tchaikovsky Symphony No 1-6, Manfred Symphony, Overtures Warner Classics

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony Nos 1-6
Manfred Symphony, Op.58 
Romeo & Juliet – Fantasy Overture 
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
1812 Overture, Op. 49 
Sérénade mélancolique in B minor, Op. 26
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (symphonies, Romeo & Juliet)
National Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (1812)
London Symphony Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (Sérénade)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (variations)
rec. 1976-99
Warner Classics 9029586924 [6 CDs: 420]

Whenever complete cycles of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are discussed, it seems as if the usual suspects are trotted out – Jansons, Muti, Haitink, Karajan, occasionally Pletnev – but rarely this cycle by Rostropovich and the London PO from the 1970s. Perhaps this has something to do with the sound, that, when originally released on vinyl and cassette, proved to be overwhelmingly shrill and boomy, forever condemning its reputation as a set to be avoided. However, its release on compact disc, firstly by EMI and now (with even more music), Warner Classics, has been one of those happy successes where transfers to the silver disc has been an overwhelming success over the LP equivalents – indeed, I felt the sonics to be very good, full and rich with just a faint hint of analogue hiss, as you would expect from this period. This now allows the listener to fully appreciate these recordings from a conductor whose recording of the Tchaikovsky ballet suites made with the Berlin PO around the same time for Deutsche Grammophon are justly celebrated and show him to be a fine interpreter of this composer’s music.

Being especially familiar with Rostropovich’s slow and monolithic late recordings of Shostakovich (as well as an equally slow and epic Dvořák New World Symphony made with the LPO at around the same time as these recordings), I was initially somewhat wary as to what to expect, especially with the first three symphonies. My worries though, were unfounded;  Rostropovich’s pacing is most conventional in these earlier works, which respond especially well to his big ‘Russian bear hug’ approach with a generously rich string sound that is expertly set against glittering and sparkling woodwinds, along with an imperious splendour on the brass. The balance he achieves in these symphonies between youthful grandeur, warmth and balletic grace is exemplary and if he perhaps fails to match the extraordinary affection in the First Symphony’s second movement Adagio of either Bernstein and Haitink in their respective recordings, in every other respect he is unmatchable, inspiring performances of tremendous enthusiasm from the London Philharmonic players with nary a hint of an apology for these being “early” works.

The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies share similar virtues in very good and orthodox, if not absolutely top-drawer, performances; if they both marginally lack the extraordinary intensity that Mravinsky and Karajan (DG 1976) bring to the scores, for example, some may consider them all the better for that. However, I am not sure if they would ever be anyone’s library choices.

Turning to the Fifth Symphony … well, this is an extremely individual reading indeed, very well played by the London PO, with the brass especially on top form. Of particular note is the way Rostropovich opens the first, second and final movements – very slowly and sombrely. It is noticeable in the first movement how the conductor slowly builds up the tension, effectively so, admittedly, but then again both Mravinsky and Karajan generate considerably more heat long before Rostropovich does. He also starts the famous second movement more adagio than andante, the mood quiet and subdued, the solo horn pensive; different, I have to say, from the usual Romantic hue most other conductors seek to convey and when the Fate motif crashes in towards the end of this movement, it is done so at a slightly slower speed than usual, with a tremendous and terrifying sense of foreboding. He opens the final movement in a similar fashion and as the movement progresses, the emphasis is often more on the maestoso from Tchaikovsky’s instruction of Andante Maestoso, with stately tempos to match; strangely enough, the only other performance that I have heard to take such a similar approach was also with the London PO, but this time under Sir Adrian Boult on an ancient Marble Arch LP from the 1950’s. Overall, if this is too idiosyncratic to be a first choice for the work, it is nonetheless a refreshing and highly original take on a “war horse” which deserves the highest respect; certainly, any listener who feels they have heard everything there is to hear in this symphony would find this recording very rewarding.

The Manfred Symphony continues this individuality of approach and sees Slava turn to his epic self, not unsuccessfully so in this work. Comparison with the later Muti, with the Philharmonia also on EMI/Warner, shows the Italian to be fierier and more dramatic; Ahronovitch with the LSO on Deutsche Grammophon is more like Rostropovich with his slower tread, but he seeks out the Russian soul in this work, where Rostropovich, alternatively, seeks to achieve huge weight and gravitas. The music can take it, though, and indeed responds very well to such an epic, widescreen treatment, although I note that my MWI colleague, Marc Bridle, found it somewhat “overbearing” in his review of this recording’s single release on Presto Classics. Therefore, while I probably would not prefer Rostropovich’s reading to either the aforementioned Muti or Ahronovitch (puny organ in the latter apart), it is nonetheless highly distinctive and extremely recommendable.

The original EMI set also contained the symphonic poems Francesca da Rimini, as well as Romeo and Juliet. I have never before heard the opening measures of Francesca taken as slowly as here and I am not sure if the music can quite take the weight, nor does it really reflect the storyline – surely there should be a sense of panic and desperation in the inner circles of Hell that are conspicuously missing in a reading featuring a preponderance of slow and grinding tempos? Romeo is more conventional – and much better for it, full of character, too, (just listen to the way Rostropovich gets the London PO strings to start the great romantic section when it first appears at barely a whisper, while its final climax is sung with a full-throated passion that is quite overwhelming). My favourite recordings of this work include one made by Karajan and Berlin PO on DG Digital, where the balance between romance, the fire of the sword fights and the full weight of tragedy at the end, is nigh on perfect, as well as Bernstein’s first recording (now available on Sony Music) with the New York PO that is brimful of youthful excitement and passion – but I must say that in my estimation Rostropovich runs them both very close. 

For this latest reissue, Warner Classics have generously added some additional music to the original, already well-filled, six CDs taken from Rostropovich’s back-catalogue with Erato, as well as a late EMI Digital recording. The 1812 Overture is from a disappointing release with the Washington National Symphony Orchestra on Erato, coupled with an equally tepid performance of the Fifth Symphony which bore no resemblance to the earlier LPO taping in either distinction of interpretation or fire in performance. The Rococo Variations finds Rostropovich reprising his ‘other’ role as solo cellist, on this occasion accompanied by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – there is little to choose between Rostropovich on this recording and his earlier, perhaps more famous, traversal with Karajan and the BPO on Deutsche Grammophon, other than he was not fond of the cello he was using at the time of the Karajan recording, but Ozawa’s accompaniment creates an impression of being more discrete and respectful when compared to the flair and panache of an inspired Karajan and his Berliners. The last added work, the Sérénade Mélancolique finds Slava reversing roles, this time leading the London Symphony Orchestra as they accompany a rather forwardly-balanced Maxim Vengerov in a recording originally released on EMI Digital. I can understand why these three recordings have been added to this new set and while neither collectively, nor individually, do they really add anything to the desirability of the release overall, no-one should complain and can only applaud when a major record company adds even more music to their releases.

In spite of my caveats, this well-filled, bargain-priced six CD set, which is also available on mp3 and FLAC, is worth anyone’s time and attention. If perhaps it isn’t quite as consistently fine as Muti’s with the Philharmonia (also on EMI/Warner) or Haitink’s with the Concertgebouw (originally on Philips, now Decca Classics), Rostropovich’s readings of the first three symphonies as well as Romeo and Juliet are superb, whilst the Fifth Symphony and Manfred are highly individual and distinctive. They demand to be heard and I am glad they are available once again in sound that really does them justice.

Lee Denham

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Recording details

Kingsway Hall, London, October 1976 (Symphonies)

Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 1977 (Romeo & Juliet)
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, 1988 (1812)

Abbey Road Studio No.1, 1999 (serenade)
Boston Symphony Hall, 1985 (variations)