It is a favorite ploy of, say, the early-to-middle baroque aficionado, and other esoteric types, to wail about sheer excess at the release of the 23d, no less, currently available recording of a masterpiece like Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. "Oh, my," they utter, "how can the money-grubbing record companies inflict upon us yet more Tchaikovsky drivel when at this point the entire oeuvre for piccolo and tympani by Philippo de Philippines remains untooted and untapped?"
Well, one answer is that the 23rd version of Tchaikovsky's Fourth may be the best -- as seems to me to be the case with the new recording by the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado. That conductor, as Washingtonians learned from his work here last fall with La Scala, is one of the first of his generation of jet-set wunderkinder to be clearly advancing from the virtuoso sight-reading stage into mellow, mature musicianship. Abbado gives to the symphony an electric shock of drama that this haunted work calls for. And in the process he gets from the Vienna orchestra an electric precision and clarity that is good news from this noble, but recently rather tired-sounding institution. Abbado's new association with Vienna as principal conductor could bring the world's oldest orchestra into an exciting new era.
Perhaps Abbado's age (barely 44) is a factor in his uncommon grasp of this work's relentless -- and enormously eloquent -- fatalism. Tchaikovsky was reaching his 40s when he felt driven to compose this "musical confession of the soul" in which he declared his deepening pessimism about the ultimate course of life (it's basically a statement of the experience Gail Sheehy defines in "Passages" as a curse of the 40s -- an emotionally searing realization that the best may very well not be ahead.)
Tchaikovsky was coming out of a brief, disasterous marriage. Of the startling, ominous fanfare that opens and dominates the whole symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote, "This is 'Fatum,' the inexorable force that prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized." It is followed by, of all things, a waltz melody (but a sad one) that represents the growing melancholy that follows such an experience and that -- just as in life -- expands in intensity as the movement progresses. The two themes finally end the movement in a blazing statement of musical rhetoric.
The work is really more music drama than sonata form, but a performance must respect both aspects; the Fourth Symphony is also a brilliant piece of orchestration. And with Abbado it's all there. The opening brass have a clarion quality unduplicated since the landmark Koussevitsky recording more than 30 years ago with the Boston Symphony (talk about recordings that need to be reissued, bloopers and all). And the relentlessness of the drama is calculated with great precision. After the first movement, listen to the luster of the legato strings in the second movement -- and the virtuosity of the cascading fourth movement taken at the most breathtaking clip I think I've ever heard.