S022584 Reviews

S022584 Winter Daydreams

FANFARE January/February 1999 Page 263 by Michael Ullman

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 1, "Winter Daydreams"
Hamlet - Fantasy Overture
The Voyevoda Symphonic Ballad

Yuri Simonov, cond; USSR Maly State SO SONORA SO22584CD (72:05)

These recordings were made in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and the Tchaikovsky Hall, also in Moscow, in 1986 and 1987 before a respectful (and quiet) audience by an orchestra that had been founded by its conductor in 1985. It is for several reasons, then, a remarkable document. It is well recorded in spacious, detailed stereo, and it is for the most part played extremely well. The orchestra has its imperfections: The strings sound less smooth than those of some orchestras, and we hear such things as the occasional bobbled note by the hems (in the first movement of the symphony). Simonov, who was Mravinsky's assistant at the beginning of his career, has most things right. His Tchaikovsky is powerful, but also nuanced and crisp. I admire the gentle movement of the second movement of the symphony, a movement that is surely one of the highlights of Tchaikovsky's orchestral writing. Where this performance falls behind the best is in the third movement, which is not as light or graceful as recordings by Pletnev, Jarvi, or Karajan. Those are wonderful performances, and they are joined by the Markevitch on a budget Philips twofer, which offers the first three symphonies and the Hamlet Fantasy.

On the other hand, Simonov has also recorded the less popular symphonic ballad, The Voyevoda, a piece about which Tchaikovsky was at best ambivalent. Before its premiere, the composer asked his friend Taneyev what he thought of the piece. Taneyev didn't like it, disconcerting Tchaikovsky, who evidently virtually sabotaged his own piece while conducting its premiere. Afterward, Tchaikovsky destroyed the score. It survives because the producer of the concert refused to turn over the individual parts.

That's hardly an inspiring story, but then Tchaikovsky hated most of his compositions, and The Voyevoda has its charms. The story is grim: A "voyevoda" is a provincial governor. In the Pushkin poem on which this is based, our provincial returns home to find his wife sleeping with another man. He instructs his servant to shoot the wife, but somehow gets shot himself instead. Tchaikovsky's music doesn't tell the story any more than his Hamlet follows the twists of Shakespeare's play. But there are sweeping melodies, stormy interludes and a sober ending - sober for Tchaikovsky, that is. Most listeners will be happy that the piece survived and that we can hear it played this well with such good recorded sound.


TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1;
Hamlet Fantasy Overture;

USSR Maly Symphony Yuri Simonov
Sonora 22584 72 minutes

This is a sleeper. The sound is excellent--clear and detailed yet three-dimensiona1. 'The booklet is mum on who actually did the recording, though I can't imagine it being the product of a Russian source like Melodiya or Soviet radio. In any case, this is a first-rate analog recording made in concert in Moscow in 1986 or so. The orchestra sounds quite "Western", meaning that it is free from many of the most annoying Russian orchestral quirks: harsh, nasal oboes, sour bassoons, blatty trumpets, wavery horns, and rough strings.

Other conductors, most notably Karajan (DG) and Rostropovich (EMI) have plumbed greater emotional depths in the symphony, but Simonov and his players blew me away with the quality of their performance. They offer up even more kinetic energy and rhythmic definition than Muti (EMI), but they do fall short of the rich, luxurious orchestral tone of Haitink's Concertgebouw Orchestra IPhilips). Over the years I have reviewed in these pages dispiriting accounts by Anikhanov, Litton, and most recently, the downright bizarre Dorati (Mar/Apr 1998). The tedious, drab Abbado still echoes in the fringes of memory. Simonov surpasses these versions by a country mile, and I'd put him on par with my favored Seattle Symphony/Schwarz (JanlFeb 1995). In fact, Simonov may be the antidote for listeners who find Schwarz a little too relaxed.

The first movement requires a conductor with a firm hand to keep it from being rambling and diffuse. Simonov offers the direction and dramatic logic that makes this movement exciting and cogent, II is simply gorgeous, suffused with Slavic melancholy, and he makes the most of the climax. III is crisp and elastic, and Simonov assaults the finale with vigor and masculine energy, though he enhances the feeling of conciseness by taking a cut in the movement's exposition. I hope that won't discourage listeners from enjoying a very fine performance of a piece that has had relatively few on records.

The Hamlet is the full concert overture, not the truncated version that accompanied Tchaikovsky's incidental music for the play. It is a gloomy, monochromatic work, rather limited thematically and perhaps not from the composer s top drawer. Simonov is not going to replace Muti (EMI) and Stokowski (reissued on various labels) as my favorites, but he imparts an energy and drive to the music that makes it exciting, dramatic, and evocative of the play's powerful emotional currents.

The Voyevoda was Tchaikovsky's last tone poem A brief work (12 minutes here), it is not one of composer's best efforts in the form. Nevertheless, it is weII-crafted and enjoyable, as long as one does not compare it to Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini or even the Tempest. It has had a fair number of recordings, but many have dome the work little service (Abbado, Slatkin, Inbal) Simonov's honest, well-balanced version may be the best yet.

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