TCHAIKOVSKY Symphonies Nos 1,2 & 5
Vasily Petrenko’s gripping recording of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos, 1/09) tantalised listeners that a complete cycle may be in the offing. That was back in 2009. Seven years on – and jumping ship from Naxos to Onyx – that wish is set to be granted. It was worth the wait: this release of Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 5 makes the best possible start to the projected cycle. We’re certainly not short of symphonic Tchaikovsky on disc. A number of UK orchestras headed by Russian conductors (Vladimir Jurowksi with the LPO, Valery Gergiev with the LSO) have been active on the Tchaikovsky front in recent years, along with the Ukrainian Kirill Karabits in – appropriately enough – the Little Russian (No 2), but Petrenko and the RLPO emerge from the pack strongly.
I’ve always shared a fondness for Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, whose subtitle is usually translated as Winter Daydreams (although Winter Reveries is a more accurate translation of ‘Zimniye gryozy’). Petrenko’s approach makes me love it all the more. He sets brisk tempi – the first movement is a bracing troika ride through the snow, with pin-sharp playing and breathless excitement. The RLPO strings may not be as opulent as their LSO counterparts but their playing is crisp and lithe. This is an extrovert reading; listen to the lively timpani volley in the third movement’s closing pages (6'40") or the jaunty Cossack dance finale, where Tchaikovsky employs a genuine Russian folksong, ‘The garden bloomed’. Here the orchestra is at its exuberant, unbuttoned best, even outdoing Jurowski’s LPO for excitement.
Folksong plays its part in the Second. Horn and bassoon are at their most cantabile in the mournful ‘Down by Mother Volga’ in the Andante sostenuto introduction before the Allegro vivo kicks in (3'21") with strenuous attack. Petrenko rattles through this movement considerably faster than Gergiev and Karabits and bustles the RLPO along in a skittering Scherzo. It’s only in the perky march in between (which Tchaikovsky originally composed for his opera Undine) that Petrenko drags his feet a touch. The variation-based finale (featuring the Ukrainian folksong ‘The Crane’) isn’t great music but Petrenko bursts the bombastic introduction deliciously, whipping up an exciting finale,
punctuated by a doom-laden tam-tam before a joyous coda.
Petrenko’s Fifth is terrific too, if not quite as blistering as Jurowski’s; that performance with the LPO remains the best of recent years. The Fate motto is quietly announced by the RLPO clarinets before being swept away by torrents of impassioned playing. There is a glowing nobility about the first horn’s solo in the Andante cantabile before massed brass bite hard in a chilling restatement of the Fate motif. The turbulent finale leads culminates in a stoic reiteration of the main theme, before the coda gallops away triumphantly.
If future releases match these impetuous, glorious performances, Petrenko’s should be a cycle to be reckoned with.