TCHAIKOVSKY's "Romeo and Juliet" is probably the most widely beloved of all tone poems. While it is usually referred to as one of his earliest works, the form in which we know it was actually produced in 1880, some 11 years after the original version and about a decade after the first revision. The 1869 original has just been recorded for the first time, as part of a two-disc set of unknown Tchaikovskiana performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the young Australian conductor Geoffrey Simon (Digitech Chandos DBRD 2003).
It's always intriguing to discover "unknown" material by so well-known a composer as Tchaikovsky, and particularly in his main field of activity, music for orchestra. But the contents of this sumptuously (and digitally) recorded set tend to confirm the verdict of history more than to suggest a case of undue neglect.
As for the 1869 "Romeo and Juliet," it only points up the validity of Balakirev's judgment in pointing out to Tchaikovsky that the introduction wouldn't do. It reminded Balakirev of a "Haydn quartet," while what he considered appropriate was a "Liszt chorale"--something Tchaikovsky did indeed approximate in his perfectly judged final version of the piece. The development and conclusion are different in the original version, too; all that is really recognizable is the conflict and love scene sequence following the introduction.
On the same disc are a pleasant but utterly trivial little Serenade for Nikolai Rubinstein's Saint's Day (apparently modeled, in miniature, after Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll"), the Overture on the Danish National Hymn, and two excerpts from the opera "Mazeppa"--the orchestral depiction of the Battle of Poltava and the familiar Cossack Dance. Both the "Battle" interlude and the Danish Overture represent the sort of thing Tchaikovsky brought off more effectively in the "1812 Overture," though the composer himself regarded the Danish Overture as superior.
The entire second disc is devoted to the incidental music Tchaikovsky composed in 1891 for a production of "Hamlet" by Lucien Guitry's visiting French troupe. The Overture is a shorter version of the relatively well-known overture-fantasy, Op. 67, and several of the individual numbers were adapted by Tchaikovsky from various earlier works: the Act II entr'acte, for example, is the beguiling Alla tedesca movement from the Third Symphony.
Among the other numbers are two songs for Ophelia, appealingly sung by Janis Kelly, soprano, and a Gravedigger's Song, sung by Derek Hammond-Stroud, baritone. All three settings are in French, the language in which Guitry's performances were given and for which Tchaikovsky wrote his music.
All the performances in this set are more than sound, the German pressings are impeccable, and there are very informative notes by Edward Johnson in addition to full bilingual texts for the songs in "Hamlet." The set will appeal, though, to collectors of musical curiosities more than to the average--or even the dedicated--lover of Tchaikovsky's music.
The same composer's Fifth Symphony, composed three years before the "Hamlet" music, is offered in a new digital recording by Riccardo Chailly and the Vienna Philharmonic (London LDR-71033). The great orchestra is not always as tidy here as one expects, but sounds pretty good all the same. Chailly seems to aim for a balance between logic and drama, but no clear-cut point of view emerges. The big climaxes are curiously understated, while little accompaniment figures are fused into unwarranted prominence here and there.
Such touches may strike some listeners less forcefully than others, and the performance as a whole is by no means unattractive, but there are many superior versions of this work. In the digital category alone, there are Karl Boehm's sober but eloquent account on DG and Ormandy's superb "takes-you-where-you-want-to-go" reading on Delos. Even on budget labels, there is the ripe Monteux (RCA Gold Seal) and the aristocratic Markevitch (Philips Festivo). I look forward to more from Chailly, but I'll pass on his Tchaikovsky Fifth.