Friday, 30 March 2012

A new Schubert completion - update

In my last blog ‘ A Schubert Completion?’ I speculated over what would be on offer in Thursday night’s BBC Radio 3 concert billed as a first performance of a specially commissioned completion of Schubert’s Symphonic Fragments D.708a.

Given that Brian Newbould’s orchestrated sketches of D.708a have already been recorded more than once, this was indeed intriguing. It turns out that Professor Newbould has made a ‘completion’ of the sketches that turn the 18 minute orchestrated fragments into a full blown 35 minute symphony.

Schubert began thirteen symphonies but amazingly only finished seven. This leaves a remarkable six symphonies left in various stages of incompletion. Symphony number eight is, of course, the famous ‘unfinished’ but where do the others feature in Schubert’s chronological list of compositions?

It is useless to try to put numbers to these incomplete works, though D.936a is given the number ten. Instead the catalogue number D is given. These are known as Deutsch numbers after Otto Erich Deutsch who first compiled a catalogue of Schubert’s works, published in 1913.

The symphonies are thus in the following order:

Sketch for Symphony                                   D.2b
No.1 in D major                                            D.82
No.2 in Bb major                                          D.125
No.3 in D major                                            D.200
No.4 in C minor                                            D.417 ‘Tragic’
No.5 in Bb major                                          D.485
No.6 in C major                                            D.589 ‘Little C major’
Symphonic Fragments in D major                D.615
Symphonic Fragments in D major                D.708a
No.7 in E minor/major (incomplete)              D.729
No.8 in B minor (incomplete)                        D.759 ‘Unfinished’
No.9 in C major                                            D.944 ‘Great C major’
No.10 in D major                                          D.936a

The Symphonic Fragments D.708a were written only in piano score with the third movement scherzo nearly complete but the other three movements only partly sketched.

It seems evident in this work that Schubert was trying to move from a classical model to something new. Whilst he doesn’t really break away from the style of his earlier symphonies, he is certainly striving for the mature style that he developed by the time of the Great C major.

In D.708a an orchestra the size of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven is used which is in keeping with the still classical nature of the work.

During the interval of Thursday’s concert (29th March 2012) Professor Newbould explained his method of providing additional material to complete the work as well as speculating on the reasons why Schubert probably ran into trouble with the symphony, in that he had almost certainly had problems over the choice of some of the instrumentation. It seems that one of the problems that probably arose, in the finale, was over whether to use trombones, which he went on to include in his 7th symphony started very soon after putting aside D.708a.

In this ‘completion’, Brian Newbould opts to leave out trombones. Many other choices had to be made, of course, given that it is only the third movement that was nearly complete in piano score.

Indeed, in my Philips recording of the work, by the Academy of St Martins in the Fields conducted by Neville Marriner, the first movement fragment lasts just 2’ 52’’, the second movement 3’ 25’’, third movement scherzo lasts 8’ 11’’and the fourth movement only 3’ 10’. Compare this to the ‘completed’ work, performed yesterday, which is around 11’12’’, 7’53’’, 7’36’’ and 7’50’’ respectively (the third movement was obviously taken faster than on my recording).

Thursday’s performance of this symphony by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena in their new venue at Salford Quay was well worth all the expectation, with a wonderfully vibrant and purposeful first movement allegro vivace and a beautifully expressive lyrical second movement andante con moto. The scherzo allegro vivace had a really light touch followed by a fleet footed presto that really danced along.

I hope that this completion and the others commissioned by the BBC will be recorded.

I actually missed this broadcast on Thursday but thanks to the BBC iPlayer I managed to hear it. You too can still hear it whilst it is on iPlayer.

See also: A new Schubert completion.


Monday, 26 March 2012

Who likes the Nokia ring tone?

I was lucky enough to be at a top notch two piano recital by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow at Millichope Park in Shropshire last Friday. Described by Gramophone magazine as ‘…a dazzling husband and wife team,’ this was phenomenal playing by any standards. The opening work was Frank Bury’s Prelude and Fugue in Eb, a really fine work written in the 1930’s. Millichope Park was the home of Frank Bury and is still in the same family. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful performance of Schumann’s Andante and Variations in Bb minor that followed. These two pianists have a stunning accuracy and play as if they were one.

Anthony Goldstone has undertaken a lot of work on unknown, incomplete Schubert piano works. In this recital it was Mozart’s fragments of a second sonata for two pianos that he had brought to a performing version and it proved to be a major addition to the catalogue.

After a scintillating performance of Chopin’s Rondo for two pianos in C major, came Gershwin’s own two piano arrangement of An American in Paris. Frankly this was, for me, the highlight of the concert with Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow really showing how they could do jazz and swing.

As an encore the duo played a piano four hands arrangement by Anthony Goldstone of Francisco Tárrega’s Gran Vals. This innocuous piece suddenly surprises after about 14 seconds with the tune that Nokia chose in 1993 for their ringtone.  Quite a novelty but poor old Tárrega will never live it down.

I’ve been listening to Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow for some years now and admire their wonderful artistry in a wide variety of repertoire from Mozart and Schubert to contemporary works. They now record for Divine Art records  and have recently recorded some of those unknown, incomplete Schubert works, this time for piano duo.   

                                                              Divine Art 25026

                                                              Divine Art 25039

Entitled ‘The Unauthorised Piano Duos’, Volume 1 of these two CDs includes a two piano version of the famous Trout Quintet. No Schubertian should be without these fascinating discs.
There is much great music in fine performances to discover from these two fine pianists but for more information go to the Divine Art website .

 Two CDs that I have recently acquired are:

Divine Art

Divine Art
The first disc entitled Delicias (delights) includes some substantial pieces, not the least of which is the first recording of an evocative two piano version of Manuel de Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain) spectacularly played by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow.

There is a sparkling performance of Chabrier’s España and a thoughtful and poetic performance of Granados’ Quejas ó la maja y el ruiseñor (Laments or the Maiden and the Nightingale).

The Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895/6-1963) was of both Cuban and Canary Islands decent. Here we have Malagueña from his piano suite Andalucía evocatively played.

Joaquin Rodrígo, though a prolific composer of works for many other instruments, is known all over the world for his guitar concerto Concierto Aranjuez. This attractive two piano version of the slow movement works extremely well, with the guitar part reproduced note for note on the piano in a sensitive performance by these pianists.

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was a fine composer whose piano works have been recorded by Eric Parkin on Chandos . Her lively piece La Sévillane for two pianos shows very clearly the amazing precision of these two pianists.

Saint Saëns looked to the Aragon region of Spain and its folk music tradition for his La Jota aragonese, which proves to be an attractive piece.

The master orchestrator, Rimsky Korsakov, wrote his orchestral work Cappricio espagnol in 1887. Given the wonderful orchestral writing, one would think that a piano duet version would lack the colour and interest of the original but the composer’s own piano duet version is quite a stunning alternative that brings much of the colour and variety of the orchestral version, particularly in this vibrant performance.

Finally there is the piece by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909) and, as this is again a first recording, it will probably be the only chance most people have of hearing that Nokia tune in its original context. It’s certainly great fun.

The second disc is called ‘The Jazz Age’ and includes Gershwin’s two piano arrangement of an American in Paris that I heard at the Millichope recital. It’s a spectacular opening to this wonderful disc.  I have to confess that I am not a great enthusiast of Gershwin but this performance is terrific, catching all the various moods of this piece. I also think the Gershwin’s two piano version seems to hold together better than the orchestral version. Certainly in this great performance it does.

Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960), an American from Massachusetts who studied under Widor, is one of two composers on this disc that I have not heard of before. His Jazz Studies for two pianos cover a variety of moods that are more dance than jazz. Amongst Hill’s output are symphonies and concerti which I would certainly like to hear.

Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde is probably one of his best known pieces and in this piano duet version by the composer of his ballet, bluesy and jazz elements permeate an otherwise more serious work, which is played to great effect by these pianists.

The Slovakian, Alexander Moyzes (1906-1984) also wrote symphonies but here we have his Jazz Sonata for two pianos in which the duo bring out the various layers of this music, concluding in a richly dissonant finale. Once again these pianists play as if one.

Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960), the other composer unknown to me, was born in Budapest and studied under Kodály. Here we are given a selection from his Easy Dances for piano duet where each miniature has a varying mood from Foxtrot to Rumba before ending with a Charlston. These moods are perfectly caught in these exquisite performances.

The disc ends with two works that act as light encores, Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust in Louis Merkur’s two piano arrangement and another piece by Gershwin, this time a piano duet arrangement of Embraceable You. Light they may be but they are perfectly formed and perfectly played.

Both of these CD’s are beautifully produced with excellent notes by Anthony Goldstone. The recordings made in St John the Baptist Church, Alkborough, Lincolnshire are first rate.

I urge collectors to try these discs and especially an American in Paris – what a great piece that is in this performance.

In my next blog I want to look at why Finland has produced so many fine contemporary composers.

See also:

Playing of astonishing brilliance from Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow in works by Mussorgsky, Alfven, Ibert, Lyadov, Britten and Ireland

The music of Brian Chapple in mesmerising performances by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow

Original Planets from the brilliant piano duo Goldstone and Clemmow

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A new Schubert completion?

Next week BBC Radio 3 will broadcast 200 hours and more than a thousand performances of Schubert over eight and a half days. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Schubert’ this will involve the broadcast of all of Schubert’s completed works as well as what has been described by the BBC as specially commissioned completions of his music.

This is interesting in itself, but also causes some confusion. According to the Radio Times, on Thursday 29th March 2012 at 8.35pm there is a performance of a Symphony in D major D708a completed by Brian Newbould. This is billed as a ‘first performance.’

This is odd because, as mentioned in my blog of 11th February 2012, Neville Marriner has already recorded performances of Brian Newbould’s realisations of two symphonic fragments with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. One of these symphonic fragments is catalogued as D.708a. What then are we to expect of Thursday night’s ‘first performance’ played by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena?

One thing is certain, the concert that night is a must for all Schubert lovers, as will be much of next week’s output on BBC Radio 3.

See also: A new Schubert completion update -

Monday, 19 March 2012

Havergal who?

There is a plaque on the wall of a modest terraced council house in Moulsecoomb, Brighton, Sussex that reads ‘composer William Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived and composed the Gothic Symphony here 1922-1927.’

In many ways this humble dwelling sums up Havergal Brian’s life of artistic endeavour and obscurity. Born in the Staffordshire potteries, Brian came from humble origins but, with financial support from Herbert Minton the wealthy director of the Minton china firm, by 1907 with the London debut of his English Suite, he was on the threshold of great success. The press praised him ‘…such a remarkable success is rarely, indeed, achieved by an English composer who is almost unknown in the Metropolis…’

Yet by the time of the First World War his reputation had diminished, his first marriage had collapsed and he had left the Midlands for London. His perceived treatment of his first wife did little to endear him to his friends such as Minton and Bantock. After remarrying he kept the existence of his first family a secret from the children of his second marriage until his death.

Despite working for Musical Opinion for a number of years and taking hack work his financial circumstances were always poor. Even as a music critic Brian’s work wasn’t without its problems. Writing in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel in 1909 he criticised a performance of works by Gounod and more specifically the singing of two local ladies. The Chief music critic threatened to shoot Brian on sight if he showed his face in the office and a postcard was sent to Brian addressed to ‘Haver Gall Brian’ with a graph on the back indicating in no uncertain terms the comparative merits of a certain Miss Nuttall’s singing against the musical talent of Brian.

Yet despite all the setbacks Brian, with his determined and, in many ways, obsessive attitude wrote thirty two symphonies, five operas, over thirty miscellaneous orchestral works, two concertos, works for voices and orchestra and a number of piano works.

For more information take a look at The Havergal Brian Society's website,

His most famous work is, of course, the colossal Gothic Symphony (No.1) scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, children’s choir, two double choirs, and huge orchestra and written between 1919-27.

The Gothic was originally numbered two as Brian had, in 1907–08, composed a work which he called A Fantastic Symphony. He destroyed half of it, keeping just two movements as independent works, and it was only in 1966 that Brian re-numbered his early symphonies so that it became ‘Symphony No 1’.

Attempts were made to arrange a performance in the 1930 without success and it wasn’t until 24 June 1961 in Central Hall, Westminster, that a semi-professional performance conducted by Bryan Fairfax was given. Brian met the composer Robert Simpson (1921-1997) by chance in 1951.

Simpson’s support for Brian led to a performance of the Gothic Symphony on 30 October 1966, at the Royal Albert Hall, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This led to a renewed interest in the music of Havergal Brian.

By 1975 Lyrita had recorded symphonies number 6 and 16. Later EMI recorded symphonies number 7, 8, 9 and 31 (apparently no longer available but copies obtainable via Amazon ). In 1988 Hyperion recorded symphony number 3 . It was Marco Polo (Naxos) that began a concerted attempt to record all of the symphonies starting with the Gothic in 1989. Since then they have recorded ten more of the symphonies, together with the violin concerto and other orchestral works.

Toccata Classics have also recorded a CD of songs and the legend for violin and piano and two volumes of orchestral works .

Disappointingly Naxos have released no more recordings but happily Dutton  have issued symphonies number 10 and 30 as well as a recording of the cello concerto. Hopefully this is the start of a new attempt to record all of the symphonies not yet available. With the Lyrita, EMI and Hyperion recordings this means that twenty of the thirty two symphonies have been recorded so far.

During the 2011 proms the Gothic Symphony was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘…the symphony produced the unsettling experience of music poised on the edge of genius – almost a masterpiece…’. This performance has since been released by Hyperion

So what of the latest release by Dutton?

Dutton Epoch
CDLX 7267

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Martyn Brabbins in an issue that includes, not only Symphonies 10 and 30, but also the Concerto for Orchestra and English Suite No.3.

In many ways this CD is a good way to get to know Brian’s music. The 16 minute Symphony No. 10 in C minor has all the usual Brian fingerprints, strong rhythms, brass and percussion and sudden changes of mood. Completed in 1954, when the composer was 78 years of age, this single movement work calls for a large orchestra that includes triple woodwind, large brass section, two harps and a large percussion section including a thunder machine. Most of the material is developed from the opening march theme and progresses through moments of storm and fury as well as moments of quiet lyricism.

Symphony No. 30 in Bb minor, completed in 1967, is in two movements played without a break. Again a short work at just over 15 minutes, it starts with an expansive theme that is short lived before moving through a myriad of moods including some fiercely fragmented climaxes before ending in a triumphant dissonance. Again the orchestra has a large percussion section.

The Concerto for Orchestra could almost be another symphony though the deployment of instrumental forces makes the title of the work apt with a duet for flute and oboe and later a duet for violin and cello. The orchestra used is smaller than either of the two symphonies included here. In this work there are less abrupt changes of mood and, after a glorious lento coda, the work ends with full orchestra.

The final work on this disc is the English Suite No.3. The five movements have titles such as ‘Ancient Village’, ‘Postillions’ and ‘Merry Peasant’ but this is not a pastoral work in the usual sense. Brian wrote this work whilst living in Brighton just prior to his move to nearby Moulsecoomb. Brian stated that this work was inspired by the Sussex countryside around him. The Third English Suite has been said to be something of a parody of pastoral themes but I tend to hear it as the countryside and its people filtered through the strange and distinctive prism of Brian’s musical language.

This is an important release of English music that should be better known. Certainly collectors of Brian’s music will need no encouragement but I would also recommend this CD to those who do not know his music. The recording made in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow is first rate. I really hope that Dutton continue with more releases of Havergal Brian’s music.

In my next blog I want to move to music for two pianos and piano duo as well as the curious incident of the Nokia ring tone.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Do we really need period instrument performances?

I was reading an article recently where an eminent pianist justified his playing of Bach on the piano by saying that ‘nobody could stand listening to a harpsichord for an hour and a half’.

Now, whilst I have recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations played on both the harpsichord and piano, my recordings of the 48 Preludes and Fugues are all played on the piano. I wondered if this meant that I, too, couldn’t stand over an hour and a half of the harpsichord.

Much, of course, depends on the harpsichordist, the music and, indeed, the actual harpsichord used, so the answer isn’t that simple. I prefer piano performances of the ‘48’ simply because I feel that the musical line comes over clearer so long as the pianist is also capable of projecting the inner logic of the music.

This led me to think about the whole issue of period performance and the question of whether we really need ‘authenticity.’

I first came across a recording on period instruments way back in the 1970’s when I bought a Beethoven recording by the Collegium Aureum with Jörg Demus playing a   hammerflügel - or fortepiano. I later investigated the baroque era as well as the recordings of early music by David Munrow (coincidently Gramophone magazine has a feature on David Munrow in the current – April 2012- issue

Looking back at these early recordings makes me realise how far period instrument performances have come and, more to the point, how much they have influenced modern instrument performances.

In the late 1980’s I remember being absolutely stunned by the Beethoven Symphony recordings made by Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players . These performances really blew away the cobwebs with faster tempi, a clarity that allowed the beautiful woodwind passages to come through and their sheer exuberance.

Period performance gradually made its way into later music such as Berlioz and Brahms and, again Roger Norrington knocked me flat.

However, time is a great leveller and with David Zinman’s recording of the Beethoven symphonies with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on Arte Nova something new had been injected into modern instrument performances. It was not only the new Barenreuter edition that was used by Zinman, it was also the  livelier tempi, period style use of timpani and a feeling of rediscovery.

It was at a concert at Symphony Hall, Birmingham where I heard the late Sir Charles Mackerras conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, that I realised how much the period instrument movement had affected modern performances.

Sir Charles had of course conducted period instrument orchestras and this showed not just in the style of playing but in the use of instruments. Within the ranks of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were natural horns and timpani using the harder hammers to give a period ‘thwack’ to the sound.

This was one of Sir Charles’ last concerts so I feel privileged to have been present to hear such a memorable concert when, despite his years, he gave a wonderfully vibrant and exciting performance.

Since then I have looked more closely at his last recordings of Mozart and Beethoven.
Hyperion Records
CDS 44301/5
Linn Records
Linn Records

Mackerras’ five CD Beethoven cycle on Hyperion was recorded live at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. Right from the start with symphonies number one and two these are joyous performances with rhythmic tempi, fast at times, but not rushed. Climaxes are pointed up with thunderous timpani and there is a transparency that allows the brass and woodwind to shine through. The orchestral control is superb as they follow every nuance of Mackerras’ direction.

Just listen to the third symphony with crisp, precise playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There is poetry in the thoughtfully paced second movement funeral march. Whilst the horns are not natural horns they make a wonderful rasping sound. 

Symphony number four doesn’t disappoint, with a taut finely paced performance. Mackerras seems to find the natural pulse in Beethoven so these tempi just seem right. Symphony number five is not in any way hysterical or overblown. The music is allowed to speak for itself. The transition from the third movement scherzo to fourth movement allegro – presto is perfectly drawn. Early sketches show Beethoven planned a three movement work at one stage.

If anyone still thinks that Mackerras’ tempi are too fast, then listen to the opening of Symphony number six, a true allegro non troppo. The storm sequence in the fourth movement is not a violent one but effective nevertheless. The finale is beautifully realised.

The seventh and eighth symphonies have a light touch with number seven played with a confidence and swagger. The performance of number eight brought out so much that is new that I went back to Karajan’s 1962 recording for comparisons. In many ways number eight is the finest of the cycle bringing, as it does, such insights.

For the ninth symphony Mackerras changes to the Philharmonia Orchestra, an orchestra that, like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Mackerras had close links with.

It may be heresy, but the Choral is not my favourite Beethoven symphony.  However, this performance is such that it raised my appreciation of this great work. After the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the sound of the Philharmonia in the first movement sounds positively huge. The slow movement is beautifully done. The soloists for the choral finale are well chosen and make a fitting conclusion to this fine cycle.

Adopting period style for its own sake is not a guarantee of good performance but in the hands of a master like Mackerras the rewards are immense. These performances are full of stature and should be in anyone’s collection.

The recordings made in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh are excellent. There is no obvious audience noise in first four CD’s but in the ninth there is some slight noise between the movements.  There is a good amount of space around the orchestra and great instrumental detail. Applause is edited out.

It was Mackerras’ performances of Beethoven that led me to listen to his Mozart. In the Linn recordings you have symphonies number 29, 31, 32, 35, 36 and 38-41 thus giving you all the later symphonies.

Played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra again, these performances show an equal regard for period performance practice. These are agile performances with dynamic contrasts, period sounding brass and prominent timpani. These are joyous readings with wonderful orchestral balance and transparent textures. As in Mackerras’ Beethoven, the poetry in the slow movements is beautifully revealed.

The Jupiter symphony in particular shows all the sparkle and grandeur of this wonderful culminating symphony. These are performances that show Mackerras’ lifelong knowledge and wisdom with Mozart.

With first rate sound these two discs should not be missed.

But what of period performance itself? Well, I prefer to have my cake and eat it, enjoying both period and modern instruments. Surely it is the musicianship that counts more than anything and, in the case of Sir Charles Mackerras, that is what you get in spadefuls.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Tchaikovsky – the reputation they tried to destroy

How many people love Tchaikovsky’s music? Whether it’s the symphonies, the first piano concerto, the violin concerto or the ballet scores most people wouldn’t think twice about accepting his music as great music.

However, over the years certain elements of the critical classical music world have tried to destroy his reputation by describing his music as vulgar. I once heard the comment that to listen to a symphony by Tchaikovsky was to have a lesson in orchestration. But even that comment, as accurate as it may be, could be construed as a backhanded insult.

Even in his own time Tchaikovsky suffered severe criticism. When he played his First Piano Concerto through to Nikolai Rubinstein, Rubinstein said it was bad, vulgar, fragmented, clumsy, unplayable and, in places, stolen from other composers. According to Rubinstein only two or three pages were worth keeping. You can’t get a worse opinion than that. Yet this very concerto is probably the most popular concerto ever.

Of course Tchaikovsky is not the only one to have suffered from musical snobbery. As recently as 1954 the music of his compatriot Rachmaninov was described in Groves as being ‘…monotonous in texture ... consisting mainly of artificial and gushing tunes.’

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi also suffers from the same attitude presumably because of his richly orchestrated (he did, after all, study under Rimsky Korsakov) and sometimes flamboyant music.

Even the great Liszt himself wasn’t immune from such criticism. I have a 1925 edition of a book on Liszt by Frederick Corder, a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, who said of Liszt ‘…the themes are often very beautiful, but they stick out like the almonds in a Dundee cake, they fail to cohere…’ Why on earth then did Corder bother to write a book about Liszt? He seems to have thought of him as merely a great pianist, given that he pretty much writes off Liszt as a teacher.

Our own Vaughan Williams is still misunderstood by some because of the damage done to his reputation earlier in his life by being considered a pastoral composer and a member of the so called ‘cow pat’ school. Constant Lambert remarked that VW’s Pastoral Symphony reminded him of "a cow looking over a gate." Stravinsky allegedly said that it was like ‘staring at cow for a long time.’ Yet this work was very much VW’s response to his experiences in France during the First World War. It certainly isn’t comfortable music. Then, of course, there’s the 4th Symphony – try calling that ‘cow pat’ music.

But to return to Tchaikovsky, despite all the attempts to destroy his reputation he is probably one of the most listened to classical composers today.

These thoughts came to me quite strongly when listening to a marvellous re-issue of the symphonies by Newton Classics .


I have listened to many different cycles of the Tchaikovsky symphonies including Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on EMI/Virgin , Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI , as well as Mariss Jansons’ terrific cycle with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos .

So how does this newcomer hold up? Well it’s not a newcomer at all as Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) made these recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960’s and what terrific performances they are.

Even if the opening movement of number one (a particular favourite of mine) is taken slower than I’m used to, it is overall a fine performance. But, progressing through these performances, the fire and poetry of them just seems to get better and better.

The recordings from the 1960’s are remarkably good, with a clarity that lets the brass sound out without any shrillness. String sound is particularly good with next to no edginess to the sound.

The only small disadvantage is that, in order to fit them on four discs, symphonies two and five are split over two discs. Whilst I wouldn’t be without Janson’s superb cycle, I certainly wouldn’t part with these wonderful performances. Any Tchaikovsky lover should get this inexpensive set.

So what about Tchaikovsky’s reputation? Is he a great composer? Well after listening to these four discs in just two sittings I would be hard pressed to come to any other conclusion.

In my next blog I want to move to the question of period instrument performances. Do we really need them?