Many years ago, in a vain attempt to widen my knowledge of classical music, I rummaged around for tapes and CDs at bargain prices at a record store that was about to close down. Amongst the goodies on sale for next to nothing was a Deutsche Grammophon tape of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under their Chief Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky. I had heard that name before spoken in venerated tones as the doyen of Shostakovich symphonies and mentor and teacher to many conductors such as Yuri Temirkanov and Mariss Jansons (who was still relatively unknown). Indeed, when one mentioned the Leningrad Philharmonic, the name Mravinsky was inexorably connected with it.
I still remember my reaction when I played the tape for the first time – those first notes were a raw, unrefined brass sound that made you listen to see what came next. What emerged was playing of an exemplary technical order but the level of emotion, passion, intensity, dynamics and phrasing compelled your absolute attention. It rapidly became one of my favourite works and I have measured every performance since then against this recording – not surprisingly, very few orchestras and conductors are able to deliver get amount and raw passion which one comes to expect of both Tchaikovsky and late-Romantic Russian music. How he keeps the orchestra together in a blindingly furious finale, I have no idea. When you listen to it for the first time, you think the whole thing is going to end up in a very nasty trainwreck but when you listen again, it is in fact carefully thought through. It is an amazing rendition by both conductor and orchestra who clearly know each other well. “Fabulously noisy”, as a friend put it.
One reviewer on a prominent website has said that this recording of the 5th symphony is ‘ratty’. Well, that might be a little unfair but I think this has something to do with the closeness of the sound compared to the recordings of the 4th and the 6th, particularly in the first and last movements. Not being familiar with the venue (Wembley Town Hall, London of all places), it’s hard to judge whether this was a deliberate thing or not. There’s nothing wrong with the last movement here which is delivered in style. Yes, there might be better recordings and renditions of this work but when heard as a whole with the other two, it makes sense in a musical and historical context.
As for the ‘Pathetique’, again, it is hard to think of a performance live or on record that has a real Russian passion about it. Many a time I have been sorely disappointed by a lack of overt emotion in the last movement in particular. This is not to say that one should overdo it or take it to extremes, the music itself is evocative enough, but it must needs be played with hearts on sleeves and (again) that heart-aching, heartbreaking rawness must be so apparent. Yes, it is a hard thing to get right, but when you hear this, it sounds right, it feels right.
For a time I avoided Tchaikovsky as it had become a bit of a cliche at certain times – a rather too oft-played staple for most of the orchestras. No more – here is the definitive (at least for me) versions of these great works. I am delighted to have them in my (small) collection.