When was the last time you saw Tchaikovsky with Janáček, and on a historical reissue? It's an odd way for ICA Classics to showcase Rozhdestvensky, especially as the world doesn't need another Tchaikovsky Fifth. But hey, I asked for this personally, and it turns out to be a solid disc. While not a prime choice, the conductor's unique insights and abilities to convey them are both worth hearing.
In neither Tchaikovsky nor in Janáček do you think of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as being especially accomplished. But Rozhdestvensky was a very fine artist, overshadowed by his peers, but fully capable of making great music. He was head of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a mere three years, but programmed much Tchaikovsky, including the ballets, scores the conductor loved dearly. He also identified with the larger symphonic works, although I have not heard the conductor's very late London Symphony readings that ICA's notes speak of (and in any event, I doubt that they could surpass those of Igor Markevitch with the same orchestra). The present Tchaikovsky Fifth comes from the 1978 Flanders Festival and reveals ample evidence that both conductor and orchestra could indeed handle this music.
As befits a great ballet conductor, Rozhdestvensky eschews the familiar bombast of the score and focuses on a richly dancing and dramatic conception. The first movement is very good, if not great, lacking the razor-sharp playing of Szell or the sheer beauty of Ormandy. The slow movement is a different story, with a gorgeously phrased horn solo and a warm blanket of strings. Those positive qualities extend to a wistful and elegantly shaped Valse. The BBC winds play especially well, but the strings also distinguish themselves with a welcome alacrity and strength. Rozhdestvensky certainly knew how to conduct this side of the composer; the graceful nature of this music likens it to the great music for the theatre, and rightfully so. The approach is less effective in the finale, which although full of color and emotional warmth, ideally needs a little more fire to achieve greatness. The BBC forces again play very well, and it's clear the conductor gets what he wants. Whether you also desire it will be a matter of taste. I frankly don't know how I feel about it overall. Some days I really like it, others I find it quite lacking. Chances are the true verdict is somewhere in the middle, but competition is simply too stiff to make this a clear recommendation.
On the other hand, the Janáček is a rather pleasant surprise. Recorded at the end of the maestro's BBC tenure, it features better artistic merits all around. The sound is infinitely clearer – the Tchaikovsky is distressingly murky and was recorded in a cathedral – and the playing sounds better, too. Part of that is the improved audio quality, part of that isn't. Within a very short time, it's abundantly clear that Rozhdestvensky improved the playing of this band. The clearer sonic picture allows you to appreciate the solo playing and committed ensemble work overall. Bela Dekany sounds absolutely fabulous, but then, so does everybody. For his part, the conductor really makes this music work. You wouldn't know that this is totally new to his discography. While he's not Mackerras with the Czech Philharmonic – and the BBC forces are still hardly that – everyone does give 100 percent and as a result, the end product is very much worth giving a listen.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman