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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Essential Classics

  • Symphony #4
  • March slav
  • Overture "1812" *
* Mormon Tabernacle Choir
* Valley Forge Military Academy Band
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sony Essential Classics SBK89957
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Heads up! This is not the Tchaikovsky Fourth just released in the bare-bones RCA Ormandy box dedicated to the composer, and the same goes for the shorter works. Although that box includes some Columbia recordings, the RCA takes were ultimately chosen for the larger works, presumably because they had long been out of print. So why then is this disc suddenly not available on Amazon? There was no need to delete this earlier recording just because the latter suddenly reappeared. It's just another slap in the face to the Ormandy legacy, a considerable blot on the classical music industry he helped to shape.

While not in the RCA box, this is indeed the beloved Fourth that has now appeared on two separate "Essential Classics" discs with the exact same contents. This present disc is an ugly shade of purple, but otherwise is the same recording cherished for years. In the main, the symphony features some unidiomatic string sliding, but nobody seems to much care. The playing is tremendously fine, and Ormandy conducts both lushly and excitingly. Certainly this trumps his label mates; Bernstein recorded the piece twice for Columbia, and both versions have been hard to find recently and feature far less polish. Szell's Fifth was recorded on Columbia, but his Fourth was made in London with Decca Records. It's a fine, if hardly great performance that is again difficult to get outside of box sets. I prefer Ormandy's Philadelphia effort over the latter for sure.

In the March slav, Bernstein probably has the slight edge (also on Sony, and very exciting despite some tinkering with the percussion), and probably in the 1812 as well. While Ormandy brings the same passionate excitement to these lesser scores as in the symphony, the Marche is a touch heavy and the 1812 has been bettered by others. While some might like the contributions of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – and I thought it was very cool when I first picked up this disc as a high-school senior – any excitement or thrills they provide is compromised by the fact that they sound like mush, especially at high volumes. Ultimately though, millions came to Tchaikovsky thanks to Ormandy, and many still are. No matter what my reservations are, this is a classic.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman