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Big Tchaikovsky Box
on May 9, 2012
Let's start with the good. This "Big Tchaikovsky Box" uses recordings from the Vanguard catalog, and was issued by eOne, the current holder of the tapes. Tchaikovsky wasn't a focus of the label, but Vanguard managed to publish some very fine performances over the years, and they have been collected here.
Highlights of the set include Maurice Abravanel's tapings of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets with the Utah Symphony. The recordings from the 1960s sound fresh, and while the Utah brass and winds at times suffer in comparison to, say, orchestras in Philadelphia and New York, the difference is inches and not yards. Abravanel recorded excerpts from Swan Lake with the Utah Symphony in the 1950s for another label (and a filler on the first CD issue of Rodzinski's The Nutcracker, on the old MCA Classics "Double Decker" series), and the orchestra is much more refined sounding in Vanguard's recording. Purists might turn up their noses at a "complete" Swan Lake with traditional cuts, but Abravanel's dramatic conducting sweeps criticism before it.
Turning to the rest of the set, the American Symphony Orchestra recording of the Fourth Symphony remains a classic not only for the performance but for the orchestration. Conductor Leopold Stokowski, as was his wont, couldn't resist 'improving' Tchaikovsky's orchestration. Fanfare magazine once published a detailed list of all the changes made to the score; I don't have it at hand, but even from the first notes you notice something is different. There's no denying the impact the recording makes.
The three performances led by Pierre Monteux are live tapings from the Vienna Festival in 1962. John Ogdon is a grand soloist in the Piano Concerto, and Monteux leads exciting performances of music written back when he was a music student eight decades before (Romeo and Juliet and the Fifth Symphony). Vanguard's sound is a little distant but very good for live recordings.
Somary's recording of the Serenade for Strings with the English Chamber Orchestra is from an early 1970s recording of "Russian Music For Strings." Compared to many performances, this one comes across as small scaled without a compensating virtue such as clarity. Somary, best known for his Bach and Handel recordings, was never a conductor to tear a passion to tatters; I'm not sure such a dry-eyed approach works for Tchaikovsky. A curiosity. I wish eOne had reissued the Arensky Variations on the Theme of Tchaikovsky that was the flip side of the LP.
The rest is filler. The three Vienna State Opera Orchestra recordings, including the Sixth Symphony, are distinctly ordinary - run throughs at best.
The productions of the MP3s in these Big Boxes have had problems in the past. My only complaint with this set is that there often seems a very long time between the end of one track and the beginning of the next. This is especially annoying in Swan Lake, since it interrupts the flow of the music.