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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Symphony & Ballet Suite

  • Symphony #1 in G minor "Winter Daydreams", Op. 13 (1866)
  • Suite "Nutcracker" Op. 71a (1892)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Sony SK48056 DDD 1992 65:57
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I was eager to audition this recording. It is the later Tchaikovsky symphonies, of course, that get all the attention from the CD companies, but who cares to record the first three? Apparently, Claudio Abbado is completing a cycle for Sony, which has already issued #2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. I must point out that one of Abbado's best recordings on CD is the Deutsche Grammophon 429527, a great bargain (price B) disc containing two superlative performances (and in excellent sound) of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies 2 and 4. (It is currently out-of-print, though).

This new Sony disc, compared to the much earlier DG recording mentioned above, must be considered a let-down. One would figure the Chicago players to constitute an excellent Tchaikovsky orchestra. While there are moments on this disc that hint at that possibility, I'm afraid the conductor and recording engineers do much to thwart any real achievement in this direction.

The work's first movement, "Dreams of a winter journey", here evoke neither. Abbado fails to allow the Russian folk themes which Tchaikovsky employs to punctuate and illuminate; this is a serious trespass. Occasionally the splendid Chicago brass courageously amend matters, but the effect is transitory. Despite an abundance of opportunities in the music, the slow movement and scherzo never dare to be as mellifluent, impish or impetuous as would gratify this listener.

The last movement is always do or die. Even a mediocre performance can be saved by a finale steeped in praiseworthy resolution. Such is not the outcome in Abbado's Tchaikovsky First. As the woodwinds, then strings and finally entire ensemble conspire in the swelling crescendo that is to dominate the affirmative culmination of the work, I neither developed a rapid pulse, sweaty palms nor raised eyebrows. This is to say, the orchestral pyrotechnics were of mere dynamite, whereas a nuclear display was necessary.

In conclusion, Abbado's approach to this early Tchaikovsky, the epitome of the Romanticist, was a decidedly Classical, meticulous, and detestably deodorized one. He detached himself and his orchestra from the naïve and exciting spirit of the composition to become fastidious, uninspiring executants. Aided by an unnatural and bothersome recording (what do I mean? It was of the clinical, 'digital-ice' variety, lacking a sheen to the string tone and spaciousness to the overall orchestral sound), this is a release that goes unrecommended. Also, the producers in their wisdom have seen fit to saddle us with yet another recording of the Nutcracker Suite. With delightful Doráti (Philips 426177, price B) and supple Solti (London 430707, price M), to name just two of many fine alternative recordings of the Nutcracker Suite available, Abbado/Sony can be totally ignored.

Copyright © 1996, Peter S. Murano