Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic. Philips B0004113-2.

Following up on his highly acclaimed account of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, released in 1999, came his rendition of the Fourth Symphony, recorded in 2002 but unaccountably waiting until 2005 to see the light of day. Anyway, if you are familiar with Gergiev’s way with Tchaikovsky, that is, no holds barred, you will surely like his interpretation of the Fourth.

The lengthy first movement is practically a mini symphony in itself, most of it bluster, and Gergiev plays it that way, with plenty of gusto and excitement by the close. The second, slow movement has never struck me as memorable, and not even Gergiev can do much with it except hope to get it out of the way, although he does so with a graceful hand. Gergiev could have taken the pizzicato Scherzo more playfully, but it comes through fine, especially with the Vienna Philharmonic playing with such finesse. The Finale, one of Tchaikovsky’s biggest showstoppers, gets the full-bore, hell-for-leather treatment, starting strong and ending in an appropriately thrilling ride.

The thing that undermines the performance, however, is Philips’s sound, which the company recorded live, with all its attendant problems. No matter how loud the music gets, it always seems reticent, held back, distanced, and muted. Thus, much of the animation Gergiev attempts to generate rather evaporates within the softly shrouded sonics. The recording is also available on a hybrid SACD in multichannel surround, however, and for those of you with the appropriate playback equipment it may effect an improvement in the sound.

By comparison, the studio recordings of Szell (Decca), Jansons (Chandos), and Haitink (Philips) sound better and more open, while Monteux (JVC) may be best of all. In fact, a side-by-side comparison of Gergiev and Monteux was such a night-and-day difference sonically as to take my breath away. Considering that the Monteux recording is over four decades older than Gergiev’s, that’s quite an accomplishment, even if you have to pay double for the JVC audiophile edition to get it. And, incidentally, I like Monteux’s performance better as well.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa