THE TCHAIKOVSKY CYCLE. Symphonies 1-6. Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Fedoseyev. Recorded live at the Alte Oper Frankfurt in 1991. Arthaus Musik 109318 (6 DVDs)
On December 26, 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev declared his office extinct and handed over its powers to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union — various components of which had been falling away over a period of several years before that fateful day — officially collapsed. Earlier in the year, the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra had paid a visit to Frankfurt, Germany for a series of concerts under the title ‘The Tchaikovsky Cycle.” One can only wonder what these musicians were thinking as they played some of the most glorious music of their heritage in a foreign country, while their homeland was literally falling apart. Since there are no notes accompanying this formidable boxed set — in fact there is no booklet at all — I can only guess at the circumstances under which these concerts were given and how they were received. That said, judging by the quality of the performances and the warmth of the applause, the Tchaikovsky Cycle appears to have been a great success.
Vladimir Fedoseyev (1932- ), one of the greatest living Russian conductors, became chief conductor of the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1974 and after 43 years still holds that position although the name of the ensemble has since (1933) changed to the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his work in Russia, Fedoseyev regularly guest conducts throughout Europe and has a close connection with both the Zurich Opera and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.
For many of us growing up in the 1950s, Eugene Mravinsky was the supreme Russian conductor and his Leningrad Philharmonic was among the best orchestras anywhere. For Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich performances, Mravinsky was always the point of reference.
Fedoseyev is very much in the Mravinsky tradition both in terms of his respect for the scores he is conducting and for his insistence on absolute precision from his orchestra. On the evidence of these 1991 performances, the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra was a tremendously impressive ensemble with string playing of remarkable precision and richness of sound, and an awesomely powerful brass section. The solo wind players may lack something in finesse and personality compared to the best American orchestras, but they are nonetheless impressive for their dexterity. To be sure, some of the solo playing is distinctively “Russian”. The famous horn solo in the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony is played with lots of vibrato, as is the trombone solo in the fourth movement of the Third Symphony, which may well be the way they were played in Tchaikovsky’s time.
Perhaps most importantly, Fedoseyev and his musicians play Tchaikovsky with total respect and commitment. The performances on these DVDs show the results of what must have been nearly limitless rehearsal time, but with Fedoseyev at the helm the music is always fresh, with highly expressive playing for the big tunes, careful attention to dynamics at both ends of the scale, and edge of the seat excitement in the climaxes, especially at the end of Francesca da Rimini and the Symphony No. 4.
Fedoseyev’s tempi choices are logical and in keeping with the composer’s markings, with a few exceptions: the first movement of Symphony No. 1 seems to drag unnecessarily; the Andante mosso at the end of the first movement of the Pathétique seems too fast for the character of the music; and the end of Symphony No. 5 is also played faster than usual, without the broadening out favoured by most conductors.
The soloists in this Tchaikovsky Cycle are unusually distinguished. Mikhail Pletnev is superb in Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2, and in the rarely-played Concert Fantasia in G major Op. 56. The finest music in Piano Concerto No. 2 is in the slow movement — especially in the original version played here — with extended solos for both violin and cello. Close proximity is always desirable in making music and for this movement, the unnamed principal cellist on this DVD moved his chair next to the also unnamed concertmaster for his solos and the results were wonderful. The Concert Fantasia, which contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most demanding and forward-looking piano writing, was played with great authority by Pletnev.
Viktor Tretyakov, soloist in the Violin Concerto, is often mentioned with the likes of Oistrakh and Kogan as being among the finest violinists ever produced in Russia, and deservedly so. No violinist played with a more beautiful sound and his technique was impeccable. In the Rococo Variations, Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses is just as good, with near-perfect intonation and stylish phrasing.
For me, one of the unexpected highlights of the cycle was a series of excerpts from the opera Eugene Onegin with soprano Lydia Shernikh as Tatiana and baritone Alexander Nenadovsky as Onegin. I had never heard Shernikh before and have since looked in vain for her work on recordings. Her beautiful but commanding voice and electric presence are magnificent and elicit some thrilling playing from Fedoseyev and his orchestra.
One of the concerts included in this DVD collection features a generous selection of excerpts from the ballet score Swan Lake. Unfortunately, some of this music is well-known and taken for granted to the point where workaday performances by mediocre ballet orchestras often pass for acceptable. But this is great music and deserves better. Fedoseyev and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra showed how it ought to be played. The character dances were exquisitely detailed, the big tunes soared and the climaxes raised the roof. As an added delight on this DVD, the highly-animated virtuosity of the castanet player in the “Spanish Dance” is something to see. Fedoseyev placed him toward the front of the orchestra and he is clearly enjoying himself.
Arthaus Musik deserves credit for digging into the archives to bring us this historic Tchaikovsky Cycle, first broadcast on German television in 1991. This is not HD quality and Arthaus Musik could have done a better job providing notes and information for this set; that said, anyone interested in Tchaikovsky, great conducting, and music-making in Russia in the Twentieth Century, will find a lot of pleasure in these six DVDs.