Tchaikovsky's "Third" Was Worth the Wait

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


For many years the only Tchaikovsky symphonies available on long-playing records were numbers 4, 5 and 6. These are undeniably the greatest symphonies this late 19th Century romantic ever wrote, but it was a long time before my curiosity was satisfied as to what his first two symphonies - Winter Dreams and The Little Russian - sounded like. These pieces proved to be full of lyrical tunes and were thoroughly delightful, if not as profound, as the later Big Three.

It was even longer before I came across a recording of Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony. For years I imagined that it must be so dreadful, no one could stand listening to it, or even sit listening to it, as is more often the case. Perhaps it was so boring you could only lie listening to it... and promptly fall asleep. Maybe, I thought, valiant efforts had been made to record the piece, but the musicians had all nodded off before the end of the fifth movement (yes, there are five).

But when the Symphony No. 3 in D, Op. 29 ("The Polish") finally made its appearance on an LP, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't bad at all. Sure it was a long shot from the Big Three, but it was just as melodious as Tchaikovsky's first two, and every bit as worthy of being included in an expanded collection. There are now at least six different recordings of the Polish from which to choose - on compact discs.

One by one I have purchased CDs of all of these orchestral works, plus Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. Although the Manfred is scored for the usual symphony orchestra and has the traditional four movements, it has a title rather than a number because the music follows a "program," or story - in this case taken from Byron's poem.

I recommend the Von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic recording of the First Symphony (Deutsch Grammophon 419 176-2) and the Abbado/Chicago Symphony interpretation of the Symphony No. 2 (CBS Masterworks MK 39359). Although I have and like the Oslo Philharmonic's rendition of Symphony No. 3 , conducted by Mariss Jansons (Chandos 8463), this previously neglected work has now been recorded by the likes of Von Karajan and Muti, should you prefer a Big Name.

My pick for Symphony No. 4 is Solti and the Chicago (London 414 192-2), but there are some 28 competitors, and I do not claim to have heard them all. I bought Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic for No. 5 (Telarc CD-80107) and the Delos Digital Master Series CD of the Pathétique with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Delos CD 3016). Riccardo Muti, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, does an outstanding job with the Manfred Symphony (EMI CDC 7 47412 2) - an all-digital recording which dates from 1982.

Let's imagine for a moment that you know and love all of Tchaikovsky's symphonies... and you want more. You could listen to his other orchestral music - his concertos, tone poems, overtures and ballet suites. Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and his only Violin Concerto belong in every romantic music-lover's basic library. Romeo and Juliet has to be one of the two biggest orchestral tear-jerkers ever created (the other being the Prelude und Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde). And everyone knows the 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. There are more memorable melodies per square second in Tchaikovsky's ballet suites than in most Broadway musicals.

But Francesca da Rimini, Marche Slave and Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra are also well worth having around, as is Tchaikovsky's unaccountably rarely-performed Suite for Orchestra No. 3, Op. 55 (especially the 18-minute Theme and Variations final movement).

If, after adding all these CDs to your collection, you still pine for more Tchaikovsky symphonies, why don't you give his contemporary, Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov, a try. Kalinnikov wrote two Tchaikovsky-like, very Russian, highly romantic symphonies which were very popular a century ago. Though they disappeared from the repertoire for many decades, they seem to be enjoying a comeback now. I caught one of them on a Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcast a few weeks ago, and CDs seem to be popping up left and right.

You can find Kalinnikov's two symphonies paired on Le Chant du Monde (LDC 278926) in authentic Russian performances by the USSR State Academy Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgueni Svetlanov. But the sound on this CD leaves a lot to be desired, probably because the recordings were made in Moscow in 1967 and '75 on equipment of that period. An all-digital Chandos CD is available of Kalinnikov's Symphony No. 1 with Neeme Järvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra (is there anything Järvi hasn't recorded?). The sound sparkles, but not the performance. It is paired with two pieces by Glazunov, which messes up the idea of filing CDs alphabetically by composer, though not by much.

I have never heard it, but my catalog lists a performance of the No. 1 with Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra (RLF 1886), along with music by Liadov, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Rubinstein (an alphabetical organizer's nightmare). I know I would miss the fantastic sound reproduction we are capable of today, no matter how exciting Toscanini's performance might be. Kalinnikov, like Tchaikovsky, is a perfect match for full-frequency, high-power stereo systems... especially those owned by listeners with fully-emotional, highly-sensitive, romantic hearts - and a tolerance for heavy brass.


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