The CBSO’s fabulous new Tchaikovsky recording impresses Christopher Morley.
One lasting reminder of that heady weekend in September 2007 when the CBSO and Andris Nelsons first fell in love with each other is the CD recording they made together of violin music by Tchaikovsky, with Nelsons’ old school-friend Baiba Skride as soloist.
Now we have another release of the same composer’s music from Nelsons and the CBSO, the beginning of a complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle.
The main work on this new disc from the CBSO’s new recording partner, the German Orfeo label, is the Fifth Symphony, and another CD is already in the can, with the Second Symphony (the Little Russian) being recorded live last week during concert performances at Symphony Hall.
Symphony Hall was also the venue last October for this recording of the Fifth, and the amazing acoustic gives wonderful breadth and depth of tone, allowing all the probing detail Nelsons draws from his willing orchestra to tell.
This was an orchestra starved of Tchaikovsky during the Rattle years (how does Sir Simon manage in Berlin, with its memories of Karajan’s Tchaikovsky?), only allowed to dabble in him when guest conductors were on the rostrum. Sakari Oramo of course redressed the balance with some powerful performances, but it is only under Andris Nelsons that the CBSO has committed the composer to disc (the then City of Birmingham Orchestra recorded Romeo and Juliet under the baton of Constant Lambert in 1941).
And here the results reveal just how much the players are able to respond to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration, his complex psychology, and his ability to mould unforgettable melodies and subtle harmonies.
Three of the four movements begin similarly in the lowest registers, yet the sound-world each time is totally different, Nelsons persuading his players to appropriate shadings of intensity and colour. Thus the symphony begins with dark, lugubrious clarinets, supported by world-weary, heavy strings, just as the composer demands in his score. Once the first movement is underway, Nelsons allows pauses for doubt despite the momentum’s driving thrust, elsewhere whipping up huge, searing climaxes within the overall, elegantly-structured framework.
For the start of the second movement low string chords are warm and supportive, introducing the famous, eloquently-coloured horn solo, here delivered by Elspeth Dutch. This is no mere bland play-through of a dreaded audition-piece: this is a genuine emotional statement which casts its spell over the entire unfolding of what follows. Strings converse urgently with each other in this atmosphere of underlying desperation beneath the yearning for serenity.
No desperation in the third movement, just gentle waltzing regret as Nelsons guides the instrumental lines so glidingly into each other. And then comes the controversial finale, so often accused of crowd-pleasing triumphalism, but here perhaps slightly underplayed by the conductor.
The confident, plump opening chords crescendo mightily over an impressive timpani roll to launch the main part of the movement, but I could have wished for more biting barbarity in the motor-rhythm underpinning of a second subject which takes no prisoners among the woodwind.
Completing the disc is a comparative rarity, Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture (Romeo and Juliet will complement the Little Russian release). This is given a volatile, appropriately dramatic reading, Andris Nelsons acute to its operatic context (shades of The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin here), and with affecting Ophelia solos from principal oboist Rainer Gibbons. And Nelsons does not shrink from the ending’s timpani-throbbing similarity with the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.
No chance to complain about the conductor’s concert-dress here: just revel in the vital, impressive music-making on this disc, complemented by the insert’s fascinating photographs of the CBSO in action, but slightly marred by the gushing blurb on the back-liner (ORFEO C780 091 A).