Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Also, Capriccio Italien. Dmitrij Kitajenko, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 671.

The noted Russian conductor Dmitrij Kitajenko concludes his survey of the six numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies and Manfred with this final recording in the series, the Fourth Symphony. As he did in his previous outings, he is able to inject a little new life into an old warhorse.

Of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies, the final three numbered ones seem to have gotten the most love over the years. Maybe it’s because they are the most melodic, the most dramatic, and the most stirring of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output, as well as the most overtly Romantic. Who knows. At any rate, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, in 1877-78, saying to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that he wanted to write on it "Dedicated to My Best Friend," meaning to her. In response, she persuaded him to write a program for the symphony, one he later withdrew because it caused him more trouble than it was worth. Anyway, the result was that the Fourth eventually took the public by storm, and it’s never been out of the public’s fancy to this day.

As with some of Beethoven’s music, there is a “fate” motif involved, which breaks out continuously; but insofar as its relating to any specific meaning, Tchaikovsky is a little vague on the matter in his wordy description. As the composer decided so long ago, it’s best to enjoy the symphony as pure music rather than “programme” music.

Under Maestro Kitajenko’s direction, the opening fanfare sounds elegant and regal, developing smoothly into its flowing, ballet-like second and third segments. Here, Tchaikovsky tells us that "life is a constant alternation between hard reality and fleeting dreams of happiness." Kitajenko might have contrasted these ideas more than he does, his reading a bit on the leisurely side, yet he draws out the melodies confidently, leaving us with an unmistakeable feeling of optimism. What's more, the venerable Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne play richly and effectively for him, giving the performance a rightful luster and polish.

While I’ve never thought the Andantino that follows as one of the composer’s most inspired pieces of writing, I admit it does help bring the music (and the listener) back down to earth after the exhilaration of the first movement, and in a few minutes it does finally open up nicely. It is, however, this second movement that works best for Kitajenko. His relatively relaxed approach appropriately expresses the music's overall tranquility and its touch of Russian melancholy.

There follows a playful little Scherzo, providing further relief before the big finale. Kitajenko projects the pizzicato rhythms of the movement with a charming ease, his gentle view of these capricious imaginings as delightful as any you'll hear.

Then there’s the concluding movement with its famous Russian folk song and its abundance of energy. It is really only in this Finale, which the composer marked "Allegro con fuoco" (fast and fiery) that Kitajenko probably could have shown a more red-blooded attitude. Not that he doesn't build up a heady sense of excitement at times, especially at the end, but the interpretation doesn't always produce the joy one might expect. Still, I quibble; Kitajenko does for the most part have the measure of the music and imparts to it a noble sense of Russian spirit.

The coupling on the disc is Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, which he wrote in 1880 after a carnival in Rome inspired him. The piece is redolent of Italian folk tunes, street songs, and martial music, forming an excess of vigorous melodies throughout. Tchaikovsky called it "an Italian fantasy on folk melodies."  Here, too, Kitajenko is at his best in the quieter moments, which are quite beguiling. This is a pleasantly amiable Capriccio rather than an overtly thrilling one.

Oehms Classics recorded the music at Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne, in 2010 and 2011. It comes on a hybrid two-channel/multichannel Super Audio Compact Disc playable in two-channel stereo on any ordinary CD player and in two-channel stereo and multichannel on an SACD player. I listened in two-channel stereo using a Sony SACD player. The sound is very full and widespread, slightly soft and warm, with a somewhat limited dimensionality but a realistic sense of ambient bloom. The engineers capture the dynamics fairly well, with moderate transparency in the midrange and at least adequate extensions of the bass and treble, if a touch strident in louder sections of the Capriccio.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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