Deep Tchaikovsky, moving Brahms.
As is well known, the 7th of May is celebrated around the world as International Immortal Romantic Composers Day. Or if it isn’t, it should be; for today is the birth anniversary of both Johannes Brahms (1833) and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840). Please tune to WFCR on Monday for hours of Brahms (9am & 1pm) and Tchaikovsky (11am and 3pm) in superb performances. Let me highlight two.
First, at or around 11, we'll have a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 that (to quote from an earlier blog) "scared the hell out of me" when I first heard it in the early '70s. Now I consider it the standard for how a Russian orchestra should sound, and measure other performances by it and the others like it. It features the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra and its aristocratic, demanding, dictatorial, inspirational conductor from 1938-1988, Yevgeny Mravinsky. Think the intensity of Toscanini, the discipline of Szell and the je ne sai quoi of Koussevitzky, all wrapped up in one gaunt, imposing figure. Then, place him at the head of an orchestra that preserved the uniquely Russian sound to a much greater degree than do its successors. The dark string tone, the thick brass and the positively weird woodwinds (is that a bassoon or a saxophone?) — if you've never heard Mravinsky's Tchaikovsky, you're in for a real treat. Be warned that other performances of this work may subsequently seem rather weak tea indeed.
The rightness of orchestral color also abets the Brahms performances coming up at around 1:00 this afternoon, though to not quite the same degree. For while international differences in orchestral sound are not as pronounced today as they once were, differences do remain. And for an authentically and flavorfully German orchestral sound, one can still turn to its many fine, if not internationally renowned orchestras, including those operated under the auspices of the regional German radio networks.
Devoted Mahlerians got to know the unique sound of one of these groups, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, from the superb series of Mahler recordings it made for the Denon label under conductor Eliahu Inbal. Under the direction of Paavo Järvi, the FRSO can now be heard in what to my ears is the finest modern recording of Brahms's longest, greatest and most personal work, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). No other performance I've heard of late, live or from CD, so consistently maintains line and tension, while never, ever sounding rushed — all the interpretive ideas flow directly from the work, rather than being imposed upon it. The work of the Swedish Radio Choir, so clear and with such beauty of tone, brought a smile to this veteran chorister's face. The slightly woodsy sound of the orchestra's winds and brass (what terrific horns!) bring a fresh breeze to a work that can be stuffy and stodgy in inferior hands. Only the soloists, Natalie Dessay and Ludovic Tézier could be improved upon, especially Dessay. At the risk of provincialism, I'd say that the recording would have been far better with the duo that was featured in this work not long ago at Smith College, Junko Watanabe and John Salvi.
So, one Tchaikovsky recording from the golden age (plus Van Cliburn's famous Piano Concerto rendition later this afternoon). And recent Brahms recording that provides a counterargument to the notion (if anyone still seriously holds it) that "they're not making great records anymore." Not a bad way to celebrate International Immortal Romantic Composers Day!