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What became of Tchaikovsky?

Tchaikovsky: 5th symphony etc (ICA Classics)

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Whatever became of Tchaikovsky? Time was when concert halls had to limit the number of seasonal performances of the fifth and sixth symphonies, the violin and piano concertos, such was their appeal to audiences and conductors. And the range of interpretations was infinite … from Karajan to Muti to Gergiev to Solti. 

And now? Nyet

It may be that Tchaikovsky has fallen into our general trend of disfavour with Russian expansionism, but there is no obvious reason to explain the near-disappearance of his last two symphonies and the enfeebled executions when they are reluctantly brought out. Tchaikovsky, I believe, is one of the main losers in 21st century culture wars.

Enough complaints. Spin this record of the fifth symphony and you will see what we are missing. It’s a 1971 live concert at the Royal Albert Hall by the Leningrad Symphony with its second conductor, Arvid Jansons, a musician under-promoted for ethnic reasons by the Soviet authorities. Jansons belonged to a Baltic minority and had a Jewish wife, two bad ticks; his son Mariss would later shine.

The waltz movement is as tender as any I have heard and the finale is stern though unmilitaristic

In Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, Arvid Jansons adopts an approach altogether gentler and more humane than his boss Yevgeny Mravinsky. Where Mravinsky went ballistic on national tunes, Jansons tones them into a broad cultural canvas, full of quirks and regional differences. The waltz movement is as tender as any I have heard and the finale is stern though unmilitaristic.

And there’s more. The opening of Sleeping Beauty would blow cobwebs off a corpse and Francesca da Rimini has a frightening fervour. There’s a Prokofiev first symphony thrown in by way of bonus. The sound is not studio quality but the musicianship is unassailable, indeed unattainable nowadays. This is how Tchaikovsky used to thrill us in the days when he was done with guts and conviction.

Arvid Jansons died of a heart attack, aged 70, while conducting in Manchester in November 1984. The Russian authorities charged his family for transporting his remains home for burial.

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