Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

This isn’t going to be one of those bar-by-bar overviews. Nor about who’s worse or better. I have no scores to hand. Just memories and encounters. Gut reactions. Back in the 70s and 80s during the early days of the music department at Surrey University, recruited by Reginald Smith-Brindle who wanted me to take over Romantic Studies, I taught Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies and their Lisztian motto/cyclic world at a time, academically, when it was largely unfashionable to do so. I wrote about them vociferously, especially for RCA, DGG and the LSO South Bank seasons. For a decade, succeeding John McCabe, I reviewed and reported all matters Tchaikovsky for Records & Recording. Happy to take my analytical cue from Hans Keller (1966), an erstwhile colleague at the BBC, I made a case for the ‘balletic’ Fourth (so-dubbed), arguing the last movement to be the most original nineteenth-century Finale since Beethoven’s Eroica and Eighth.

To the wide-eyed disbelief of my students, and the puzzlement of my ‘modernist’ friends, my LP shelves buckled under multiple recordings, the mustier second-hand haunts of Charing Cross Road, Great Marlborough Street, and Notting Hill Gate sourcing many. From the quirky (Stravinsky ‘conducting’ the Second in Los Angeles in 1953), through the Soviet patriarchal line (Golovanov for one, a man possessed), to the fresh and fierily inspirational (Tjeknavorian unleashing the Pathétique in Kingsway Hall, ‘Chuck’ Gerhardt and Kenneth Wilkinson in the control room). Complete editions included Abbado, Bernstein, Karajan, Maazel, Rostropovich, Svetlanov … Inevitably Mravinsky and his Cold War Leningraders in the last three, still sensational listening – Mravinsky the courtier-guardian of a tradition, benchmark to a generation, cleanser of occidental indulgence and softening. Abravanel I somehow missed; Doráti too was only ever a fitful guest at the turntable. These days I visit Tchaikovsky less frequently. The vinyls are gone, languishing somewhere in a French barn. I still have a handful of CD sets – Muti, Rostropovich, Svetlanov, Bychkov. Plus sundry individual recordings. Jansons I’ve let go. Despite unrivalled things in Shostakovich, Haitink’s gentlemanly style hasn’t persuaded me to invest wholesale. Aside from Rostropovich (LPO) and Svetlanov (the earlier USSR State Symphony LPs and videos in preference to the deliberated, slower later performances he came to give), Temirkanov in St Petersburg, and Pappano in Rome, the current marketplace doesn’t do that much for me. Exceptions aside – Celibidache in Munich (compelling if an acquired taste), Gergiev in Paris (fiercely videoed in the Salle Pleyel, 2010), Fedoseyev (varyingly), Sladkovsky in Kazan (no stranger to Russians but a comparative newcomer to the West) – nor, I’m afraid, do that many concert performances. Clinical modesty and machined ensemble before emotional explosion, second-hand imitation in lieu of life experience, noise above finesse. Generalisation, I know, yet how few, one way or another, risk to dare? Paraphrasing Colin Anderson, “performances for the time it takes to play rather than tomorrow”. If you’re going to dance with Tchaikovsky, then, at the very least, take off the city suit.

During my Guildford ‘cream brick’ period, the faculty boasted a daunting conducting pedigree. Four of our number – Brian Brockless, Nicholas Conran, Hans Heimler, David A. Pickett – had been students of Celibidache, Weingartner and Markevitch. Rapier argument, first-hand admiration, objective evaluation, example put into practice, keenly divided opinion, ordered the days. David it was – our Mahler/tonmeister director responsible for training a generation of sound engineers – who opened my ears to the Markevitch phenomenon. For no particular reason I failed as a young critic to catch up with his Tchaikovsky cycle (Wembley Town Hall, 1962-66), sampling only occasional tracks. It’s life was limited, overshadowed by newcomers to the catalogue. By the time Philips reissued the set in early 1991, digitally re-mastered across four CDs, I’d exchanged orchestral reviewing for the producer’s chair – so again it bypassed me. Twenty years later I returned to re-evaluate. High-octane chording … long-breathed phrases … pulse-emphatic groundswell rhythms … precision entries … playing ‘in Time and with Time’ (his words) … tightly slurred articulation … short-term harmonic, long-term tonal structures crafted vertically from alpha bass roots … progressive, cumulative architectural direction … instruments, soli or tutti, unbridled in full voice, full colour … a drama, a sense of theatre and rhetoric, that grows out of, rather than is imposed upon, these elements. Agree with him or diverge, Markevitch was someone who dug deep, leaving us to face subterranean, primal permutations, emotions and sensualities – frequently raw, often beautiful, never, never, ordinary. His actions plainly told us how simply, how much, he believed in a composer’s right to be right. He trusted the masters … Yes, this Cossack’s Tchaikovsky, with its rasping ‘Russified’ brass, rigorous tempo decisions, and pedigree LSO identity (legendary then), impressed.

Hearing my first Fourth in concert – at the Royal Albert Hall under Beecham, November 1959 – walking across Kensington Gardens to attend all those Hochhauser/Harold Holt Sunday evenings with their ‘special effect’ 1812 climaxes, set me on the Tchaikovsky path. Paavo Järvi’s Zürich traversal, a European cycle for our day, is the latest step along the road. As webcasts of the First, Third and Fifth Symphonies affirm, Järvi is not one to use the music as an excuse to flag a personal agenda or cultivate platform choreography. His stick technique is disciplined and clear. Body language, almost Boult-like, veers towards moderation. He watches over his musicians yet never invasively or dictatorially. He encourages them to share his custodianship of the composer. The Tonhalle-Orchester, led since 1995 by Julia Becker, claims some of the finest section principals around, woodwind not least, with rank-and-file strings of burnished intensity. He nurtures individual expression to flower, caressing phrases and paragraphs with naturalness, now receding, now urging forwards, climaxes and endings sculpted with the care and chiselled cut of a master mason. Structure, large-scale progression, the grammatical need for luftpause (indicated or not) to musically/dramatically tension and punctuate come readily to Järvi. With him one feels the panorama is mapped and focused, that the roots, rills and ravines are placed, that projection is a matter of modulated breathing and defined articulation, of finding the right moment to speak and declaim. From sighs through roused passions to grandiose prospect, the voyage is a red-blooded one, the better for no vista ever being quite the same.

Like Järvi’s RCA Paris Sibelius cycle (omitting Kullervo, this new Alpha set isn’t quite integral. We get some showcase fillers – of which Francesca da Rimini (coupled with the Fifth Symphony) is palpably an electrifying, outstanding tour-de-force. Yet (disappointingly) no Manfred. Nor (esoterically) the abandoned E-flat Life Symphony from 1891-92 – Semyon Bogatyrev’s 37-minute four-movement 1951-55 reconstruction (recorded by Ormandy in 1962, time to be revived) and Pyotr Klimov’s 32-minute three-movement 2005 realisation (scherzo omitted) offering a choice of options. On the plus side, Alpha’s sound is airy and physically detailed, involving the listener in its immediacy and unexpected spot-lit surprises; while the editing (by Erdo Groot, a seasoned Surrey graduate from the early 80s formerly with Philips, currently Polyhymnia) is artfully musical. The recordings, made between October 2019 and January 2021 (chronologically 4 & 6, 2 & 5, 1 & 3), took place in Zürich’s modular Tonhalle MAAG, a hurriedly assembled but acoustically effective spit-and-sawdust venue in use while the orchestra’s historic 1895 auditorium, re-opened last September, was closed for renovation

The First Symphony, Winter Daydreams (1874 revision), unfolds a Savrasov-like landscape of northern dawns and dusks, of distant polar crystals on the wind, the orchestra savouring each solo opportunity, in full cry for the climactic expanses if less brassily veneered than their Russian counterparts. “It was a dark night, but the whole village with its white roofs, the smoke rising from the chimneys, the trees, silver with rime, the snow-drifts, could be seen distinctly. The sky was sprinkled with brightly twinkling stars, and the Milky Way stood out as clearly as if newly scrubbed for the holiday and polished with snow.” 1886 … Christmas Eve … Vanka …

Beauty, poetry and energy profile the C-minor Second Symphony (1879/80 revision, Taneyev favouring the longer more ambitious original), its Ukrainian folk tunes and sounds and the prefatory horn and bassoon solos eloquently controlled and phrased, its speech, song and story telling blended idiomatically. The precision of the first movement Allegro, the crispness of chordal punctuations and debate, the rhapsodic yieldings, make for powerful tension, the life of the music pulsed home through driving rhythms. Stability of tempo anchors the middle two movements. Making music is the message, Tchaikovsky’s ensemble exchanges and ornamental elaborations, timbre and figuration like so many rays of light tumbling down the registers, delivered with auctorial theatricality. Sabres drawn, spurs and balalaikas, pounding hooves set the Finale ablaze. No quarter given.

The five-movement Polish-orientated Third Symphony is the Cinderella of the canon. Every now and again, its corners unseating the unwary, I wonder if I really like it. Other times it can do no wrong. In November 1977, admiring the Rostropovich cycle, I maintained that ‘with the exception of Maazel, practically no other version of this Symphony has impressed’ (Records & Recording Classical Guide 78). Part of the problem is a compositional one, particularly in the flanking movements. Integrating the block construction, repetitive episodes and tempo shifts, overcoming the patchwork traps, stalls many. At 43 minutes (cf Karajan 47, Gergiev 48, Svetlanov 45/53) Järvi’s solution is to play the work as it comes, without undue pondering or intervention. He’s not metronomically strict (on the contrary, witness the scene-painting closing paragraphs of the second and third movements) but his knack of conveying the central pillars of the music, the emotional plains, creates dependability and orientation. Getting the foundations right is quintessential Paavo. There’s much to take from this performance. The fugato and climax of the Finale, kettledrums en route between Schumann Two and Saint-Saëns Three; the darting Mendelssohnian fireflies of the Scherzo (superlative solos and dovetailing, minim around 82+/- cf Markevitch, Rostropovich … Svetlanov’s spectacular caught-on-the-wing revival at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival); the expansive glory of the central Andante elegiaco, Khovanshchina and Liadov’s Enchanted Lake thirty years on somewhere in the brush-strokes.

The final three symphonies (1877-93) bring insights of detail, orchestration, and formal fluidity. Steering a course between ardour and discretion, grace and abandon, good taste tipping the scales, the gentleman in Järvi whips up storms rather than tornadoes. There’s plenty of voltage but the tribal wildness, the rasping confrontation, the earthy onslaught so many Russians exact from these pages isn’t conducive to his manner. A feudal boyar at the helm he is not. The Fourth aspires to majestic heights, the drama operatic-symphonic, everyone glowing in the perfection of the hour, every department at full stretch with reserve in the tank, demonstration sound and a wide dynamic range illuminating and shadowing the action. Alert to the shaping and key relationships of the work, elegantly casting the ‘Salieri/Ravel/Britten’ orchestral compendium of the Scherzo, savouring the Andantino like a fine wine, sensually aromatic, Järvi alchemises the kind of physical contact performance that’s as much about orchestra/listener enlightenment and brilliance of playing as producer gratification (Philip Traugott).

Among emphases and niceties, one – the strings-off/pause interpolated before the first movement’s fff second beat in bar 402, neither in the manuscript nor published score or original printed parts – is unexpected. It’s long puzzled: what do other conductors do? For (predominantly earlier): Abravanel, Ančerl, van Beinum, Bychkov, Cantelli, Gauk, Honeck, Ivanov, Erich Kleiber, Klemperer, Koussevitzky, Markevitch, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Monteux, Munch, Reiner, Rodziński, Rostropovich, Schuricht, Stokowski, Svetlanov. Against (mainly later): Abbado, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Beecham, Bernstein, Blomstedt, Bour, Celibidache, Chailly, Chung, Doráti, Eschenbach, Fedoseyev, Iván Fischer, Furtwängler, Gergiev, Gilbert, Haitink, Horenstein, Jansons, Kristjan Järvi, Neemi Järvi, Kitaenko, Kondrashin, Kubelík, Lindberg, Maazel, Mehta, Mravinsky, Muti, Nelsons, Noseda, Ormandy, Pappano, Vasily Petrenko, Pletnev, Rozhdestvensky, Kurt Sanderling, Silvestri, Simonov, Sladkovsky, Leonard Slatkin, Slobodeniouk, Solti, Szell. A piacere: Karajan, Ozawa, Temirkanov … An anachronism of unclear provenance – but Järvi gauges it naturally, stamping rather than easing the drama, his serried battalions clearing the final puissance fence imperially, gazing before the Aintree gallop home.

Tough, regal, the first two movements beneficially slower than the (?senseless) metronome markings of the autograph, the Fifth Symphony is scaled large. Tchaikovsky’s progressive take on it, moving on from early sketches (“total submission before fate”), was “a symphony without a programme”. From the impetus of the outer movements, the intensified development of material, the prioritisation of onward momentum rather than oases of recline or nostalgia, this seems broadly the way Järvi sees it. It’s not without tender paragraphs of what he calls the “once upon a time” variety, a grandfather telling stories. Lament and remembered love in the Andante perhaps, a young ballerina’s dream in the Valse, fleeting embrace and chatter before a papillon kiss. Fatum alla russe. The fancy is ours. But princely architecture, motifs seeding mountains, the minor and major of a single motto, is the crux of the matter. The Finale, sinewy and gilded, takes us to the edge, storming the barricades before climaxing inexorably, melodrama, fateful hammering, held at bay. The kind of response blazoning the mastery of Tchaikovsky, the fertile soil of his art – “as Russian,” Stravinsky adored, “as Pushkin’s verse or Glinka’s song”.

In 2007 Järvi recorded the Pathétique for Telarc with his then orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony. To the proficiency and coolly honed skills of that American phase, his Tonhalle undertaking – quicker marcia but otherwise much the same duration – brings penetrative lived-through emotions, taut ‘speaking’ silences, and a lustrous middle-European timbre almost operatically voiced. Järvi’s Tchaikovsky, definably, explores creative genius. Indefinably – as mood and situation, companions, take us – chessboards of imagination, scarcely touchable letters of hush and heart-ache, pole-axing battles, passions and insecurities, life and death, fields and mansions, tragedies and triumph impact the listener. Faith, honesty, spiritual voyaging. (Read Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, 1985.) This is a pensive, weighty Pathétique – filmic on the one hand, darkly literary on the other. Tolstoy’s in it somewhere, Eisenstein too, Weigl’s Eugene Onegin. All for the seeking. “A programme-symphony but with a programme that shall remain an enigma to all,” said Tchaikovsky, “I often wept bitterly”. In 2007 Järvi looked upon this music, today he breathes it, his players brooding, brazen, brilliant witnesses. Redolent of Romeo and Juliet‘s epilogue, the Requiem-Finale – “De Profundis, how we all end up” – is as despairing as I’ve heard, the descending scale of Fate looming above man, a triad of B minor blackening the light. Ritenutopppp… Falteringly the pulse fades, stops, life is silenced – the soul flown.

Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky reminds, ”never feared to let himself go”. Paavo Järvi, ever the prepared disciplinarian, the pragmatic professional, yet identifying tactilely, physiologically, with the fibre and muscle, the calms, the sweep and ascent of this music, takes the hint. Likewise his Tonhalle forces, in proud command of their legacy and transcendental artistry. Grand Tours come no more baronial.

TCHAIKOVSKY SYMPHONIES Nos. 1-6. Francesca da Rimini Fantasy; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture; Capriccio Italien; Eugene Onegin – Waltz & Polonaise; Festival Coronation March. Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Paavo Järvi. Alpha Classics 778, 5 CDs.

Previously covered by Colin: