Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 - Kitajenko
Oehms Classics OC 669
Classical - Orchestral
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17; Rococo Variations, Op. 33; Andante cantabile from String Quartet No.1 (arr. for solo cello and strings by Tchaikovsky)
Leonard Elschenbroich (cello)
The magic of genuine Russian folk music“ – Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony bears the epithet “Little Russian” not due to its slight scale (although it is indeed the shortest of his six symphonies), but because many of its themes originate in “Little Russia”. In the territory of the Tsar, this was the designation for a region known abroad as “Ruthenia”: the present-day Ukraine. The recording is complemented by the famous Rococo Variations with the young cellist Leonard Elschenbroich.
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Review by John Miller - November 5, 2012
Tchaikovsky's second symphony is also his shortest. This has no bearing on its acquired title, however. "Little Russia" was the name given to it by Nikolai Dimitrievich Kashkin (a Moscow critic and acquaintance of Tchaikovsky) because of the Ukrainian folk-songs which the composer used in it (Little Russia was an affectionate nickname for the Ukraine). Tchaikovsky also began the work in the Ukraine, at the house of his brother-in-law Lev Davidov, where he heard some of the songs he used being sung by the servants.
During the summer of 1872, he also spent much time collecting and notating folk-songs, an occupation also carried out by the Russian Nationalist composers known as the Moscow "Mighty Handful" or "The Five". Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, however, wanted to create a national style of Russian music based on folk materials. Tchaikovsky, rather than quoting folk melodies, as the nationalists tended to do, used them as seeds for melodies of his own, often altering the originals considerably. He had no passion for Nationalism, and belonged to a westward-facing St Petersburg cosmopolitan faction of musicians.
From 1868-69 Tchaikovsky had published piano duet arrangements of fifty Russian folk songs, many of which make appearances in works of his as familiar as the Serenade for Strings, the Andante cantabile of the String Quartet No. 1, and the 1812 Overture. With the advent of the Little Russian Symphony, The Five and their supporters thought they had won an ally in Tchaikovsky. In retrospect, though, we see that folk music was never more than a musical colour for Tchaikovsky. Nationalism itself was never a passion. By temperament and affinity, Tchaikovsky was really a symphonist in the German style. This Germanic approach has been taken up by musicologist Attila Csampai, writer of the liner booklet. He posits that Tchaikovsky constructed the Second Symphony (as found after his often radical revision in 1879) after the model of Beethoven's Eroica symphony, at least in the second, third and fourth movements. The evidence for this, given by Csampai in his notes is quite intriguing, but it seems to be based solely on analysis of the music's structure.
Kitajenko and the marvelous Gürzenich Orchestra are in fine fettle for their reading of the Second Symphony, with deft playing and expressive finesse which makes Tchaikovsky's developing symphonic style sound almost like one of the mature last three symphonies. In comparison with Gergiev's recent release (Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-3 - Gergiev), Kitajenko's flexible rhythms and long-term phrasing in the many repeated lines of successive climaxes make Gergiev's bar-centred approach sound metrical and plodding in the first movement. Curiously, Kitajenko's basses in the pizzicatos of the last bars pluck slightly before the other strings. This is consistent and so not accidental, giving a rather different sound for the chords, whereas the LSO basses are spot on with the rest of the strings.
In the second movement's slow march (modeled on the funeral march of the Eroica?) Kitajenko makes us think more of Mahler's march from the third movement of his First symphony. The material for this movement was taken from Tchaikovsky's unfinished opera, Undine, and its fine melodies make the most of ingenious instrumental combinations and rhythmic variations bestowed on them by the master orchestrator. Kitajenko takes the movement more steadily than Gergiev, allowing more scope for characterisation. The Scherzo, which Csampai compares to "the mechanically uniform, machine-like movement of the Eroica Scherzo" is lighter and to my ears more like Berlioz's Queen Mab scherzo with a few goblin or elfin surprises. The movement ends with a "disintegrating" coda of the kind invented by Beethoven for the funeral march of the Eroica.
Tchaikovsky's variation style for the Finale bears much closer resemblances to that of the Eroica. It too begins with a lengthy slow introduction, celebrating the major key of C, with the brass choir mock-solemnly intoning a song call "The Crane", which seems to have been found also by Mussorgsky in the Gates of Kiev movement of his Pictures from an Exhibition (1874). Both Kitajenko and Gergiev are theatrical and full of vitality in their readings, with Kitajenko perhaps having time at his slightly slower tempo to draw greater expression in the lyrical variations, and he thankfully does not have the crazy piccolos which erupt near Gergiev's coda. Both conductors, however, produce a fully theatrical and very exciting finale.
It has been some time since I heard Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme (1876-77); it seems to have gone somewhat out of fashion, and also rarely appears as a filler in the many boxes of Tchaikovsky's Complete Symphonies on sale. Young cellist Leonard Elschenbroich was named as a BBC New Generation Artist in October 2012, and he is exciting interest as one the most charismatic cellists of his generation, already having worked with many of the most prominent conductors and played in world-class Festivals. His cello is a richly-timbred Gofriller.
Having compared his reading of the Rococo Variations (Fitzhagen's revised version, accepted by Tchaikovsky) with those of Tortelier, Isserlis, Harnoy, Rostropovich and others, his new recording is simply splendid. Technique in the several fiendish cadenzas is faultless, and he shades and characterises the variations so that each is an elegantly finished artistic miniature. Listen to the cadenza just before Var. 7; a deeply eloquent soliloquy which suddenly becomes a brilliant dash into the next variation. Superb!
The slow movement of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1, Andante cantabile, based on another folk song, soon became a popular success. It is often detached from its origin and even transcribed for various other instruments. The one presented here, for solo cello and muted strings, was arranged by Tchaikovsky himself, and is infrequently heard. Elschenbroich floats his gorgeous tone with purity and simplicity, bringing this treasure-house of Tchaikovsky's music to a contented close.
OEHM's recording is impressive, caught in a nicely-reverberant studio which offers a deep orchestral perspective without notable loss of detail. The booklet is attractively laid out, in German and English, conveniently with the languages on separate pages.
For those already collecting the OEHMS Tchaikovsky Cycle, this will be an obvious purchase. For others, Kitajenko's very fine and affectionate "Little Russian" should certainly be considered, especially for the accompanying pieces. I would certainly have bought the disc if only for the lovely Rococo Variations.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 3, 2013
While I understand that giving stars is not always a fool proof yardstick, the downside of it is that a starless recording no longer finds its place on the list of top recommendations and does, moreover, not show on the titles list as having been reviewed. As it happens, in this particular case, this disc got two reviews, and both of them ‘glorious’ ones at that. (From the clearly disappointed samayoeruorandajin –“I had a great review”- I take it that he, too, found Kitajenko’s Tchaikovsky’s second one of the best around). This disk deserves to be 'noted'.
For the last couple of weeks I have been listening to this disk time and again and I cannot but concur that the Gürzenichs and Kitajenko deliver a fantastic job and would, therefore, their stars be more than worth.
I will refrain from repeating Geohominid’s excellent review. Most has been said. My remarks should perhaps better have been filed under the heading ‘discussion’ were it not for the fact that it enables me to add the ‘missing’ stars.
I suppose that most of us are familiar with ‘Russian Tunes’, but for those having spent some time in that part of the world, in my case Ukraine (the nick name Little Russia may be belittling, Kiev is, in fact, older than Moscow), have a ‘special thing’ with it. Not only with the tunes, but also with the often fast changing moods between near vulgar pleasure and deeply felt sorrow. Laughing and weeping stand back to back.
Kitajenko seems more than many others able to shape Tchaikovsky’s second in that fashion, especially the final movement. That is what makes this disk for me so special. In Pletnev’s hands, the final movement becomes boring bombast. And, adding insult to injury, the Pentatone engineers, which I normally hold in high esteem, have blown the base drum out of proportion (or has it been done on Pletnev’s specific request?). I read somewhere someone’s praise that you could feel it in your stomach. This may be fine if you are watching Armageddon, but as far as classical music is concerned, I have never felt the base drum in my stomach in a concert hall.
The recording engineers of OEHMS bring us a far better balance. Wholly natural; as though they recorded nothing more and nothing less than what Kitajenko wanted the audience to hear; the orchestral balance being the prime responsibility of the conductor. 6 stars would, to my mind, be justified.
As for the Rococo variations, I should add that Elschenbroich (whom I had never heard before) has a rare tonal steadiness; clearly playing with his ‘ears’, only having to trust his fingers in the faster passages.
There is, however, a caveat: The slow movement of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 comes off as an added salon piece, where the superb cello is placed directly in front of the microphone, with the 'too' muted orchestral strings pushed back behind a curtain as it were. Nice to listen to separately, but make sure you switch of after the Rococo variations.
Copyright © 2013 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net