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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 - Kitajenko

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 - Kitajenko

Oehms Classics  OC 671

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Capriccio Italien

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Dimitrij Kitajenko


Unanimously lauded as a reference cycle by the press, the Tchaikovsky cycle with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne and Dmitrij Kitajenko is now going into the home stretch.

The new recording of the Symphony No. 4 is the penultimate in this series; the collaboration with the Orchestra and Mr. Kitajenko will be continued with Rachmaninoff starting next year.

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Review by John Miller - October 10, 2013

While Tchaikovsky was suffering one of the most harrowing phases of his life, brought on by his marriage to a former pupil to stave off rumours of his homosexuality, he managed to compose two of his greatest works, the Symphony No. 4 and Eugene Onegin. The personal disaster seemed to confirm one of his strongest beliefs, that of Fate, and hearing Bizet's 'Carmen' for the first time gave him a musical stimulus to re-start composing.

Eminent Tchaikovsky scholar David Brown's research reveals how the composer set about constructing starting material for his new symphony. Choosing the key of F minor was significant; it has rarely been used in the whole history of the form. Tchaikovsky's own music only has two examples, 'The Tempest' and 'Hamlet', both strongly associated with Fate. In 'Carmen', there are two critical points where events occur which bring about the fateful ending where the two main characters die. These points are written by Bizet in F minor. The two crucial moments are the entry of Escamillo the Toreador, an agent of Fate, and Carmen reading her cards, which indicate her death.

Tchaikovsky wrote out a list of the note pitches of the music from the first 4 bars of the Toreador's entry and the first two bars of Carmen's card reading. He then used them, with changes of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics, to fashion the limping, unsettled first subject of the first movement in a remarkable process of thematic transformation. A similar process was also used to make melodies for the Sixth Symphony. Tchaikovsky was using a technique which is effectively a Schoenbergian "tone row", the basis of much modern music. This derivation from Carmen is evidence that he did indeed have a programme involving Fate while composing, not just concocted afterwards, and to this extent confirms the extensive programme which Tchaikovsky was later prompted to produce for use at performances.

Although the Fourth is probably the most popular of the last three symphonies, it poses many problems for performers and conductors - and because of its very popularity, the risk of work-a-day performances. There certainly have not been any mere work-a-day performances here. The OEHMS cycle as a whole strikes me as being quite consistent, in quality of performance as well as engineering, and provides a fresh approach with no empty histrionics or self-regarding avoidances of Tchaikovsky's score directions. With regard to the Fourth, in my view this is the best performance of the OEHMS-Kitajenko Tchaikovsky symphony cycle, and even though it was not the last recorded, its status as a brilliant finale to the whole project is very appropriate.

Kitajenko provides a mature and fresh-sounding Symphony 4, with exceptional response from the Gürzenich players. As his view has been throughout, his tempi are generally on the slower side of the spectrum in recorded versions, in order to allow for expressive and secure playing. His readings never drag, however. In the case of this Fourth, each movement takes on a distinct character, united by explosive interruptions of the opening Fate motif.

The inner movements often get less attention, but here the slow movement is brave in its melancholy, with much gorgeous orchestration which sings out as if one had never heard it before. The Scherzo involves virtuoso pizzicato from the strings, and superbly timed exchanges between the wind and strings - you have to listen to many well-known versions of the Fourth to find one so successful. And the finale (which starts with a tremendous intake of breath) is simply a tour de force in dazzling playing by the orchestra, with Kitajenko controlling the level of tension in a perfectly natural and expressive way. The wide division of the violins left and right comes into its own here, with pass-the-parcel between the groups, well-separated in the wide sound-stage. In the last hectic pages, the strings and brass simply throw caution to the wind and pull off the most exciting conclusion I have heard for a long while - not a trace of bombast. For once, I regret there being no applause; one feels impelled to jump up and let the tension go!

Following that, it was no surprise to find that the old, weary warhorse of the 'Italian Capriccio' could get a similar refurbishment. Kitajenjo and his strings in particular give it all their love. With broad tempi, the string melody following the mellow trumpet fanfares breathes the essence of Italian song, moving forward, holding slightly; full of expression and sumptuous tone-quality. The Italian song melodies, borrowed from Glinka, appear as the blazing sunshine gives way to a soft, warm night of dance and entertainment. With playing like this, one is reminded that Tchaikovsky was the master of ballet composition. What usually appears as make-weight is here a model of how to conduct and play Tchaikovsky.

Playing and direction of this calibre demands a recording of stunning fidelity and perspective, and that is just what we get, in the Studio Solberger venue, one of the most successful in its acoustics of the several used during the cycle.

Collectors of the Kitajenko Tchaikovsky discs will not be disappointed by this final release - quite the opposite. This is a highly competitive version of the Fourth, and well worthy of hearing, whatever your Tchaikovsky preferences.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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