Along with the discovery, or rediscovery, of all those dozens of Haydn symphonies in the last 30 years or so, there was a similar, if smaller-scaled, discovery of forgotten works by another widely beloved symphonist, none other than Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Just as Haydn was for years represented by fewer than 20 of his 107 symphonies (and the total was thought to be 104), so Tchaikovsky was known by the last three of his six. ("Manfred," which is as much of a symphony as most of the others but was not included in the numbered series, was even less likely to be heard.)
It was Igor Stravinsky who championed the Tchaikovsky Second, the so-called "Little Russian," which is easily the finest of the three early symphonies. It was the one non-Stravinsky work included in the concerts Stravinsky conducted across America in the early '40s; he introduced it into the National Symphony repertory in January 1941; and it was at about that time that the first recording of the work was made, by Eugene Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony for RCA Victor.
It was about that time, too, that the NSO itself, under Hans Kindler, made the first domestic recording of the Third Symphony (called the "Polish," for no really good reason). It was not until after World War II that the First ("Winter Daydreams") appeared on records, and not until the '60s that it joined Nos. 2 and 3 as regular concert fare.
By now, of course, all six of Tchaikovsky's symphonies -- and "Manfred" -- turn up regularly in concert programs and on records, and at least a dozen conductors have made "integral" recordings of these works. Of all of these, none has been quite so persuasive, either as a whole or in terms of the individual symphonies, as the recordings made for Philips in the mid-'60s by the London Symphony Orchestra under Igor Markevitch. Other conductors have given us drama, passion and/or lyricism in Tchaikovsky's symphonies; and other orchestras have played as well as the LSO. But few recorded performances of any of these works have presented so convincing a case for the worth and durability of this music.
The listener who knows Markevitch's Tchaikovsky might compare this conductor's authority in this material with, say, Sir Thomas Beecham's in the music of Delius. There is, in fact, a Beechamish sort of reserve that keeps Markevitch's Tchaikovsky from going off half-cocked, keeps the line clean, and makes the climaxes really work. There also is a clarity that makes details usually overlooked come to life with impactive urgency -- yet without getting in the way of the main thrust or in any way impeding the wonderful momentum.
Markevitch's Tchaikovsky symphonies were issued here on domestic Philips just before that label converted to imports. A few reappeared as imports, but then disappeared again. Happily, when Philips introduced its mid-price Festivo label a year or two back, Markevitch's "Pathetique" was in the initial release; since then the Fourth and Fifth were similarly reinstated, and now the three early symphonies have arrived together.
They are most welcome, not merely because they complete the cycle, but because Markevitch's supremacy is especially apparent in the early symphonies. The Third is sheer, balletic poetry in his hands, and the "Little Russian" is so marvelously well done from first to last that once one hears it no other version will quite do: Every tempo is ideal, every beat of the drum in the fairy-tale second movement enhances the fantasy-effect, every cymbal clash and string phrase in the finale underscore the rumbustious good humor.
If the "Little Russian" is the gem among gems in Markevitch's Tchaikovsky cycle, and the Third hardly less stunning, the "Pathetique" seems to me the strongest of the many fine recorded performances of that well-loved work, and the aristocratic account of No. 5 may be welcomed as a refreshing alternative (if not an outright corrective) to the heart-on-sleeve approach so often taken with that one. All six symphonies under Markevitch are exceptional, and all six now are available on cassettes as well as discs. The respective disc/cassette numbers are:
No. 1, 6570.1613/87310.160;
No. 2, 6570.1613/87310.161;
No. 3, 6570.1623/87310.162;
No. 4, 6570.1533/87310.153;
No. 5, 6570.1103/87310.110;
No. 6, 6570.0473/8730.047.
Markevitch's "Manfred" has not reappeared, but, with the magnificent versions of that work we have from Ashkenazy (London CS-7075, cassette CS5-7075) and Rostropovich (Angel SZ-37297), both gorgeously recorded, there is no real urgency for its reinstatement.