Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 3, 4 & 6

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Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 3, 4 & 6
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

[ Onyx / 2 CD ]

Release Date: Tuesday 9 May 2017

"The RLPO play their socks off and must rank as one of the finest 'Russian orchestras' in the UK today...I commend Petrenko's as the finest modern cycle of Tchaikovsky's symphonies currently available." Gramophone Disc of the Month March 2017

Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony is an oddball. Completed in a matter of weeks - 5 June to 1 August 1875 - it is the only one of his seven symphonies (if we include the unnumbered 'Manfred') in a major key and is seen by many as a suite or divertimento more than a symphony. Minus its first movement, it has even been turned into a ballet. More German than Russian in its character - Schumann's 'Rhenish' Symphony (also in five movements and a favourite of Tchaikovsky) lurks in the background - it is certainly not 'Polish', a meaningless nickname acquired in 1899 when the conductor Sir August Manns dubbed it so at the work's British premiere.

The first movement opens with a sombre funeral march. As the music becomes more animated, it moves into the main subject in the major key (allegro brillante), thence to the second subject introduced by the oboe. The work, unusually, has two scherzos, the first of which comes next and is marked Alla Tedesca (i.e. 'a ländler' or 'waltz in the German style'). However, the emotional core comes in the third movement (Andante elegiaco) with its expressive central cantilena. The attractive second scherzo follows (in duple rather than the customary triple time). The finale (Allegro con fuoco) is marked 'Tempo di Polacca', presumably the source of the Symphony's sobriquet, though any vestige of the Polish dance is overtaken by the unexpected appearance of a fugue and the work's fiery peroration.

Symphony No.4 was written directly after Tchaikovsky's disastrous marriage in 1877 which coincided with a particularly warm period in his relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, the heiress of a railway magnate who had become his benefactor. Op.36 is dedicated to her with the words: 'To my dearest friend'. Here, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is Tchaikovsky's model. 'In essence,' he wrote, 'my symphony is an imitation of [it]; that is, I imitated not its musical thought but its basic idea.'

The first of its four movements opens with a sinister brass fanfare - 'the Fatum theme' as Tchaikovsky called it - which recurs throughout the movement, is recalled in the finale and defines the whole work. The main subject, though, is a waltz of tension and anxiety, the first time we meet in Tchaikovsky's symphonies the unguarded emotional intensity so characteristic of his work from this point on - 'hysterical climaxes succeeded by luxuriant self-pity' as Martin Cooper expressed it so elegantly. The second movement (Andantino in modo di canzona) by contrast features a plaintive oboe solo with pizzicato accompaniment with a central string section of almost euphoric yearning. This is followed by a scherzo (Allegro, pizzicato ostinato) the first section of which is entirely for pizzicato strings while the trio, scored for woodwind and brass is, according to Tchaikovsky in a letter to Madame von Meck, meant to suggest a drunken peasant. The fourth movement (Allegro con fuoco) is a colourful and boisterous festival in rondo form. The second subject, announced by the woodwind, is a folk song, 'In the field there stands a birch tree'. Op.36 was premiered in February 1888, conducted, as was Op.29, by Nikolai Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony is known as the 'Pathétique'. The Russian transliteration 'Pateticheskaya' means 'emotional' or 'passionate' rather than the French or English meaning of 'feeble' or 'arousing pity', and was suggested by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest. In fact, the composer had originally intended to call it 'Programme Symphony'. In a letter written in February 1893, just a week after commencing its composition, he confided as much to his nephew Vladimir 'Bob' Davïdov to whom the work would be dedicated. 'It is a programme,' he wrote, 'that shall remain a riddle to all - let them guess…' It was one he never revealed.

As a result, all manner of theories have been attached to this masterpiece, largely due to the fact that Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly just nine days after its premiere. Listeners saw in its tortured pages signs that the composer somehow had prior knowledge of his death - the quote in the first movement from the Russian Orthodox requiem, the unusual Adagio lamentoso finale which fades away to nothing (marked pppp) - linked to rumours that he committed suicide. Musicologists have amused themselves since the work's premiere (St Petersburg, 16 October 1893) providing proof of its hidden meaning which, whatever it is, has not impinged one iota on its enduring popularity.

Like the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the opening measures of the Sixth set the tone of the whole work - a sombre motif in the lowest register - before the main Allegro non troppo section in Tchaikovsky's typical mood of restless tension. The second movement is a waltz-that-isn't-a-waltz in the limping metre of 5/4. After this comes an exhilarating and muscular march (Allegro molto vivace), the polar opposite of what follows, for the last movement, the emotional core of the work, is surely one of the most moving and heartfelt cris du coeur in the whole of symphonic literature.

Jeremy Nicholas, 2016 (from the CD liner notes)

"The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their Russian chief conductor Vasily Petrenko have an instinctive rapport, audible in the electrifying first volume in this series (Symphonies 1, 2, 5). It's evident again here, importantly in the much-loved No 6 ("Pathetique")." The Observer

"Although he is sometimes accused of slick superficiality, the charismatic young Russian is often electrifying in his native repertoire...As with most of his Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos, he has raised the orchestra's game in this music to international level." Sunday Times

"The pleasure of Petrenko's Tchaikovsky is its brightness, its snap … there's no sense of the music being over-driven or the symphonic logic undermined. Petrenko finds instead a supple sort of exuberance and the playing is infectiously urgent" The Times

"All three performances bear the hallmark of Petrenko's signature ability to lift music off the printed page and fill it with airborne elegance and vitality. As a result there is fiery, sometimes ferocious purpose in the Fourth without any temptation to weigh down Tchaikovsky's opulent scoring. Similarly, he paces the Pathétique intuitively, complementing its heavy angst with a remarkable textural vividness and crisp energy." The Scotsman

"Petrenko's fast and furious approach once again pays off with invigorating performances which dispel Russian gloom. The RLPO play their socks off and must rank as one of the finest 'Russian orchestras' in the UK today...I commend Petrenko's as the finest modern cycle of Tchaikovsky's symphonies currently available." Gramophone Disc of the Month March 2017

"this second half of his Tchaikovsky symphonies cycles thrusts home for me a singular skill of his: the ability to build a long line over a substantial period of time. It happens to the generous melodies at the hearts of the three slow movements here...He always does his own creative thing, and it works wonders on the Third Symphony." BBC Music


CD1 59.55

Symphony No.4 in F minor op.36
1. Andante sostenuto 17.25
2. Andantino in modo di canzona 9.09
3. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato. Allegro 5.18
4. Finale. Allegro con fuoco 7.50

Symphony No.3 in D major 'Polish' op.29
5. I Moderato assai 13.57
(Tempo di marcia funebre)
6. II Alla Tedesca 6.11
(Allegro moderato e semplice)

CD2 58.09

Symphony No.3 (continued)
1. III Andante elegiaco 10.00
2. IV Allegro vivo 6.01
3. V Finale: Allegro con fuoco 7.54
(Tempo di Polacca)

Symphony No.6 in B minor 'Pathétique' op.74
4. Adagio 18.44
5. Allegro con grazia 6.47
6. Allegro molto vivace 8.41
7. Finale. Adagio lamentoso 11.38

Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, 'Pathétique' Op. 74: III. Allegro molto vivace