Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1-3
In these live performances, Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra come frustratingly close to presenting exceptionally expressive and revelatory accounts of Tchaikovsky’s early Symphonies. Most successful is their rendering of the First Symphony. Gergiev’s deceptively steady opening tempo gives listeners time to register the subtleties of Tchaikovsky’s scoring, such as the pizzicato doubling of the violins’ bowed theme; then Gergiev applies the accelerator with the sinister, lower-string octaves theme – well before the marked Poco più animato – so creating an inexorable drive towards the first theme’s climax. Gergiev’s frequent use of striking contrasts of tempos between themes, or even dramatic pauses, as in the slow movement, often makes Tchaikovsky’s First sound like a close relation to a Bruckner symphony. Yet, such is the affection with which Gergiev shapes this work that it never descends to bathos, as did Mikhail Pletnev’s equally unorthodox but over-portentous approach recently issued on Pentatone (reviewed Christmas 2012).
Less successful are Gergiev’s Nos 2 and 3. Much of the Second’s charm is lost through over-deliberate tempos, while the finale – usually such a sure-fire hit – almost disintegrates with Gergiev’s too impetuous tempo changes. With the Third, Gergiev teeters close to an unusual but successful interpretation, bringing out the introduction’s funeral-march quality as Tchaikovsky intended. Gergiev also evidently wishes to foreground the third movement’s passionate qualities, akin to Tatyana’s letter scene in Eugene Onegin; unfortunately the result sounds half-hearted and rather self-conscious. Pletnev, by taking a more straight-forward flowing tempo (on DG), makes its poignant harmonies all the more telling.