Tchaikovsky’s Early Symphonies from the LSO and Gergiev

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 10

After two times through Nos. 4-6 Valery Gergiev has gotten around to recording Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies. Gergiev’s mastery of the composer’s ballet style (he made excellent recordings of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) serves him well in Symphony No. 3, whose inner movements invite choreography. Indeed, the central Andante is one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful slow movements, and Gergiev plays up the music’s emotion quite effectively. He’s weakest in the first movement, which, with its Kalinnikov-like development section, requires the firm hand and iron-clad belief of conductors like Markevitch (Philips) and Muti (EMI), both of whom inject more energy and color than Gergiev does.

Gergiev’s Symphony No. 1 doesn’t really evoke the “Winter Daydreams” of the title, but to be fair, few performances do, with Thomas (DG), Smetácek (Supraphon), and again, Markevitch being among them. It’s an overall too-tame performance that plays down the more dramatic passages (the trumpet calls in the first-movement development, or the horns’ bold entrance in the “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists” slow movement). That is, until the Finale, where the conductor suddenly comes to life and delivers a rousing rendition. Likewise for Symphony No. 2: an electrifying Finale caps off a rather unexceptional first three movements, the tersely argued, but slowish first movement notwithstanding. Listen to Muti (EMI), Giulini (EMI), or Svetlanov (Melodiya) to hear how gripping this work can be.

Throughout all of this, the London Symphony provides impeccable playing for Gergiev, and this would be enough if not for the fact that the same band performs with more intensity and zest for Markevitch in his complete set. However, the dated (but still quite listenable) sound of those recordings might put off some, making Gergiev’s fine-sounding set a serviceable choice for fans of the LSO.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Muti (EMI); Markevitch (Philips); Litton (Virgin)

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