Two unexpected recordings of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony have been issued recently that call for the most serious attention. One is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Karl Boehm (Deutsche Grammophone 2531.078, cassette 3301.078), the other by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Bernard Haitink (Phillips 9500.622, cassette 7300.738).
It is Boehm's, of couse, that is the greater surprise, for this conductor has been most closely associated with the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss, and had never recorded a note of Tchaikovsky before. He must have wanted to do this, since Deutsche Grammophon already has recent versions of the work in its catalogue under Karazan and Abbado that are among the finest ever; he also has recorded the "Pathetique," and that should be along in a month or two. What, one wonders, drew such a conductor to Tchaikovsky at this stage of his career? o
Whatever it was, this is an extremely musical performance, one in which, as one expects from Boehm, everything is realized in terms of the grand design rather than episodically. Control is solid and firm, yes surprisingly elastic where it helps. This is not the most dramatic interpretation; but, since Tchaikovsky wrote the drama into the score, there is hardly a need for any interpretive overlay. Boehm lets that element take care of itself, and it does so nicely, with tempos rather on the broad side but by no means draggy. Both the orchestra and the engineers had one of their best days when this recording was made. All in all, an interesting and perhaps provocative release, even if not a first choice.
Haitnik, of course, has been identified with Tchaikovsky all along; what makes his new Fourth a surprise is his having recorded it, with the same orchestra, only about 10 years ago. That earlier performance, last available here three or four years ago as a cassette only (7300.016), was trim, tidy and unhysterical, but nothing very special -- rather less interesting than the new Boehm, let alone the outstanding versions under such conductors as Beecham, Markevitch, Klemperer, Abbado, Szell and Karajan. The remake is very special indeed. I would not hestitate to place it at the very top of the list of all currently available recordings of the Tchaikovsky Fourth.
Haitink's attitude toward the work evidently has changed since he made his first recording of it. His new reading is galvanic and taut, bringing the thrice-familiar score to life in a way that has nothing to do with hotting-up or exaggeration, but very much to do with conviction and commitment. No nuance in the score is overlooked; none is gratuitously spotlighted. Throughout the four movements, every tempo, every shaping of a phrase, is so perfectly judged that the idea of choice seems not to have been a consideration at all. There is pulse, there is momentum, there is flexibility; there are gloriously manageds climaxes and similarly glorious playing from every soloist and choir in the great orchestra. And Phillips had captured all of this in lifelike sound that must represent the finest yet achieved this side of digital.
Another unexpected package, this one again from Deutsche Grammophon, is a three-disc set of Tchaikovsky's three early symphonies played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (2709.101), cassettes 3371.053). From time to time Karajan, like all popular performers, must be pressured into recording music he has never performed or never thought much about; happily, the performances in this set do not suggest anything of that sort, and of course the playing itself is on a very high level. But, handsome as these performances are in their own right, they don't come near matching the extraordinary, sympathetic response Igor Markevitch shows for these charming works in his recently reissued Phillips recordings. Bernstein, Ormandy and Rostropovich, too, are all more persuasive than Karajan in the First Symphony ("Winter Daydreams"), and Dorati tops him, I feel in the Third. For the "Little Russian," there is really little point in considering any other version now that Markevitch's is available again. He is still far and away the most consistently satisfying interpreter of the entire Tchaikovsky cycle, and of that work in particular.