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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

  • Symphony #4
  • Roméo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.555714 DDD 63:56
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Lots of mediocre European orchestras make it into the recording studios, mostly because they are relatively inexpensive. (This is particularly true in the former Eastern Bloc nations.) Meanwhile, American orchestras that are at least as good, and often quite a bit better, languish without recording contracts. Apart from the financial factor, there's also snobbery involved: European music sounds better when played by European musicians. Or so they say! I don't believe a word of it.

This disc is the start of a new "American Symphony Orchestras" series from Naxos. This series will present under-represented American orchestras in standard repertoire. This approach has its pitfalls. Recording standard repertoire means that there's lots of competition, and comparisons will be made. One could hardly find more familiar music than Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and Roméo and Juliet, and it is unlikely that Naxos intends to displace favorite old recordings of this music with this new one. Fortunately, Marin Alsop is a masterful conductor of Tchaikovsky's music. The passion and drama one expects from Tchaikovsky are all there. On the other hand, she doesn't allow the music to become a vehicle for spurious interpretation or effects. When one is a risk-taker, one can succeed brilliantly (if self-indulgently) or one can fall on one's face. Alsop prefers to be safe and sane, but not to take the music for granted. Her Tchaikovsky, while not hyper-romantic, is smart, idiomatic, and always in control. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, while it doesn't always produce the most blended sounds, plays with character. In an era when all the major orchestras sound more alike than different, it is easy to forgive a slightly "honky" wind solo or raw brass line if it helps the orchestra to have a personality.

A new collector looking for his first recording of these works should be completely satisfied with what Naxos has to offer here. Collectors with multiple recordings of the Fourth Symphony and Roméo and Juliet, however, might ask themselves why they should consider yet another one. If that collector is an American, I would answer him with two words: national pride. As a nation, we are proud of many things, some of which we have really little control over. We do have control over our orchestras, and whether we support them or not. Now, more than ever, is a critical time to do so, given all the ugly things in our midst. If we can play Tchaikovsky this beautifully, there's hope for us as a nation.

By the way, the engineering will please all but the most exacting audiophile. The bass information is particularly clear and tight. The Fourth Symphony was recorded in concert (the best takes apparently were assembled to make a composite performance), and Roméo and Juliet was recorded on the day following the last concert. The perspective is realistic, and Tchaikovsky's music is allowed to make its fullest visceral impact.

Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle