Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 - Kitajenko

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 - Kitajenko

Oehms Classics  OC668

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor Op. 13, Snow Maiden (excerpts)

Gürzenich-Orkester Köln
Dimitrij Kitajenko (conductor)

Tchaikovsky affectionately referred to his first symphony as a “sin from his sweet youth”. Th e work was only first heard in its entirety on February 3, 1868 under the direction of Nikolai Rubinstein. Praised by many reviewers for its wealth of melodies, the symphony unfairly stands in the shadows of the composer’s “three great” symphonies, namely, the Fourth, the Fifth and above all, the Sixth. It can be heard in this recording from November 2009, which also includes several pieces from Tchaikovsky’s music to the play “Snowflakes”.

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Exec Producer: Dieter Oehms
Philharmonie, Cologne (Symphony 1), Nov 8, 2009
Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne (Snow Maiden) Dec 2011
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - August 26, 2012

One might say that the mighty and popular three last symphonies of Tchaikovsky could almost play themselves, given a few flicks of a maestro's baton. The more wayward first three, however, require application of commitment, affection and imagination from conductor and orchestra to reveal their true characters.

For Tchaikovsky, the 'Winter Dreams' symphony was hard won; at one stage his doctor found him "on the verge of madness", considering his case hopeless. Battling through a blizzard of adverse criticism from Rubenstein and Zaremba, his former teachers, he revised in line with their suggestions, only to find that several performances of rewritten movements met with poor reception. Eventually, however, the symphony found some success in St Petersburg, but Tchaikovsky again cut and revised it in 1874, and this final version was not performed until 1886. Despite all the negative emotions undoubtedly attached to the work, Tchaikovsky remained affectionate towards its innocence and simplicity. "I have a soft spot for it", he told a friend in 1883, "for it is a sin of my sweet youth".

A major influence which is easily detected in this symphony is that of Mendelssohn, one of the few Romantic composers which Tchaikovsky had time for. Mendelssohn's piano music was first published in Moscow as late as 1886 and Tchaikovsky must have studied it, for his first symphony has a Mendelssohnian features such as grace of invention, the lightness and pace of its scherzo (an orchestral version of a movement from a C sharp minor Piano Sonata), and the elegantly flowing melody of the symphony's opening over rustling strings. Mendelssohn had also shown Tchaikovsky the way of exploring a country landscape as a personal musical experience in his 'Scottish' and 'Italian' symphonies.

At this stage in Dimitrij Kitajenko's ongoing symphony cycle with the marvellous Gürzenich-Orkester Köln, its virtues are already apparent: fresh looks at the score, tempi which allow the music to breathe without ever seeming sluggish, an overall grasp of architecture underpinned by transparent orchestral detail. Kitajenko's tempi, however, have attracted some unsupported criticisms as being "slow". Having assembled a table of track times for Kitajenko, Muti, Svetlanov (Tokyo 1990), Karajan, Pletnev (RNO), MTT, Janssons, Rostropovich (LPO), Järvi, Abbado, I can say that the results are complex. Fiery Svetlanov is overall fastest and Pletnev slowest. The timing differences, however, are rarely greater than a minute, and Kitajenko would be a moderate on the scale. Indeed, Tchaikovsky's metronome mark for the first movement of 'Winter Dreams' of 132 at 2/4 in a bar is quite close to the Kitajenko's recorded speed. There is, of course, more to perceived speed in music than mere timings can tell.

The 'Winter Dreams' symphony has subtitles for its first two movements. The first, "Dreams of a Winter Journey" refers to the deep Siberian winters of the composer's childhood. Kitajenko's hushed opening has a good sense of open space and promise of things to come. However, as the movement progresses, I began to be very aware of one of Tchaikovsky's problems in this work: inexperienced application of a symphonic technique, namely the many repeats of each melodic sequence, forming crescendos which often don't really pay off. I have never been bothered by this before in performance, and turning to Järvi (Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 - Järvi), found that he treats each episode with a slightly different character and impetus, so the repetitions don't draw attention to themselves. Järvi also brings a warmth of expression and a more fully integrated body of orchestral sound with better solid-sounding basses, thanks partly to the wonderful BIS recording in the riper acoustic of the Gothenburg Concert Hall.

Both the first and second movements begin quietly and end even quieter, with a piano pianissimo (ppp), poetry in action. Kitajenko and Järvi ignore Tchaikovsky's explicit instructions in both places, as do the majority of conductors in the list given above. Only Abbado observes the ppp in both movement endings, most of the others insisting on a flourish up to mezzoforte. I don't wish to raise this as a major issue for the present recording, but it is amazing how a critical piece of Tchaikovsky's magic orchestration can be eroded away by the hand of "tradition", which seems to demand a closing flourish.

Oehms recorded this album from live sessions (8-10 Nov, 2009) - listen to the mics left open during the pause from the second movement to the scherzo, where an audience buzz is clearly heard. My impression is that the orchestra were more warmed up for the second movement, and the strings come into their own, with every strand and countermelody touched in with subtle voice-leading. 'Land of desolation, land of mists' is the movement's subtitle, and Kitajenko willingly explores that theme, with the aid of Tchaikovsky's instinctively inventive and colourful scoring, based only an the standard classical orchestra. The Gürzenich horns do sterling service here. Järvi's great radiant climax, however, seems to bloom more powerfully, again due to the warmth of both his sonics and responsive playing.

Kitajenko's moderately-paced scherzo has an easy lilt, with lovely pointing in the trio. Järvi, however, is strong competition here, a full minute shorter, but reading Tchaikovsky's instruction of 'Giocoso' as playfulness he takes us straight to the ballet. His trio waltz, never seeming hurried, is charmingly demure and delightfully feminine.

In the Finale, it has to be said that Tchaikovsky's material is hardly first-rate, and his handling of a lengthy fugato effortful. It requires requires playing of great panache, timing and energy to bring off successfully. After the solemn opening and subsequent repeats thereof (throaty violas deserving praise), most of is loud or louder. The movement really needs light and shade in dynamics as well as attack so as not to loose the impact of the final joyous peroration. Sadly, Kitajenko and his team are hampered somewhat here by the hard resonances bouncing back from the Cologne Philharmonie, which brighten the sound (especially the trumpets, and making very tinselly cymbals) which verges on relentless at times. Järvi sees this movement for the theatre it is, powering it with strong, dynamic rhythms, terrific articulation, with a final stretch which is truly thrilling. All the orchestral sound is well-contained and realistically reproduced in his hal,l which reflects overall warmth and depth of bass galore, including the bass drum and tuba.

Kitajenko moved to a studio for the three Snow Maiden excerpts, a good move, because here the acoustic was much more friendly to the orchestra, warmer and even able to capture realistically the very loud piccolo sounds in the 'Dance of the Skomorokhi'. The playing is lexcellent, especially in the Melodrama, which may well have influenced Sibelius in his theatre music.

An often "very good" essay of the 'Winter Dreams' for Kitajenko, but in my view not up to the high standard of some of his earlier instalments. Enthusiasts already collecting his cycle will no doubt add it to their pile anyway, and may think better of it than I, but Järvi's disc has four excerpts from Snow Maiden, and also sports a heartfelt Romeo and Juliet as well; far better value. And to add to confusion for a buyer of 'Winter Dreams' at the moment, Gergiev's with the LSO is imminent.

The choice is yours.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and


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