TCHAIKOVSKY'S "Little Russian" Symphony (No. 2 in C Minor) and his overture-fantasy "Romeo and Juliet" are both regarded as early works, since he composed them in 1872 and 1869, respectively, when he was still more or less at the beginning of his career. As we hear them now, however, they might reasonably be regarded as "middle period" works, because both were substantially revised years later, when Tchaikovsky had such masterworks as the Fourth Symphony and "Swan Lake" under his belt.
A year or two ago the young Australian-born conductor Geoffrey Simon recorded the original version of "Romeo and Juliet," and thereby showed what fine judgment Tchaikovsky had exercised in revising the work. Now Simon and the London Symphony Orchestra have made the first recording of the original version of the "Little Russian" (Chandos digital ABRD 1071), and in this case there is bound to be a good deal less than unanimous agreement on the need for revision.
At the end of 1879, when Tchaikovsky undertook the revision of his Second Symphony, he wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, that it had been a stroke of good luck when the publisher who had agreed to take the work failed to carry through: "How I thank the fates that caused Bessel to fail in his contract and never print this score! Is it possible that seven years from now I shall look upon what I write today as I look now at my music written in 1872 . . .?"
The changes took place in the two outer movements. The charming second movement was untouched in the revision, and all Tchaikovsky did to the scherzo was add repeats. The first movement, though, was entirely rewritten, using the same basic materials as the first time, and in the finale (which Tchaikovsky always regarded as one of his favorites) he made an "enormous cut." While the revised version is beautifully balanced, some of Tchaikovsky's friends believed the original was superior. One of those friends was music critic Nikolai Kashkin, who gave the symphony its sobriquet, "Little Russian." After hearing Simon's recording several times, I'm rather inclined to agree with Kashkin. At the very least, I would say there is a good case for preserving both versions.
While the original first movement is perhaps less well-organized than its replacement, it exudes a spontaneity and a more palpably Russian texture that will surely endear it to more than a few listeners. It is a good deal longer than the revised version, and it includes, inconspicuously, a motif Tchaikovsky used again in 1874 for one of the dances in his fourth opera, "Vakula the Smith," but eliminated from the revised version of the Symphony. (The opera also was rewritten a decade later, and given a new title, "The Little Slippers.")
The "enormous cut" in the finale strikes me now as gratuitous. The deleted material turns out to be an engaging and amusing episode, in the middle of the movement, in which the Ukrainian tune is tossed about by the brasses and strings in a way that is too much fun to be written off as mere padding.
It goes without saying that Tchaikovsky's different and considerably longer version of this familiar and beloved work could not have made the impression it does if the performance were no more than competent. Simon's performance of the original is splendid by any measure, one that can proudly and assuredly hold its own in any company, and the superb recording puts it all in the very best light.
The case for enjoying the original and revised versions of this work is more persuasive here, I think, than with some of the more imposing Bruckner symphonies. In any event, I would not like to do without Simon's fine presentation of the 1872 "Little Russian." If pressed to select a single recording of the standard revised version, I would not hesitate to choose the economically reissued one by the late Igor Markevitch, who, incidentally, was one of Simon's teachers (Philips Festivo 6570.161).