Here’s a beautifully recorded CD (kudos to Tim Handley for taming the massive string outcries and allowing the tambourine to be perfectly captured and balanced—all of the solo winds, notably the near-slap-free legato from the bass clarinet, are deftly placed and rendered) that, frustratingly, suffers from a preponderance of the vertical when horizontal structure and lines inform nearly every bar.
Conductor Vasily Petrenko has some excellent forces within his grasp, yet can’t draw from them uniform or precise attacks—notably in the uneasy “Lento lugubre” and the punchy opening sequence of the “Allegro con fuoco.” When Tchaikovsky unleashes a magnificent change-of-register leap for the upper strings (just ahead of the “Andante con moto’s” closing section), the ear is rewarded with “just so” detachment that astonishes as much as it defines “opportunity lost.” The too-greasy-by-half portamenti in the heroic theme are unintentionally mocked by the woodwinds when it’s their turn to deliver the same phrase.
Given that much of the development relies too heavily on repetition instead of evolution (the “Finale’s” counterpoint a welcome breath of fresh compositional air) it’s more important than ever for the music to move through the bar lines rather than being nailed to them. Even those heady moments came across as an academic exercise, followed by accompanying off-beats that needed much shorter length to keep the ensemble together and produce the required rhythmic punch.
On the plus side, the full-cry string tone is as good as any orchestra on the planet: if only it had somewhere to go. Consequent to all of this, the organ’s grand appearance—simultaneously a miracle of orchestration and dramatic reinforcement of Manfred’s demise—becomes a novel surprise, not the payoff for the entire symphony’s gradual buildup to fateful inevitability.
The Voyevoda lifts off with a stunning, frenetic ride that will delight any speakers who enjoy a good workout. The ostinato string “remainder” that provides the link to the more lyrical middle section is a bit untidy at times. Once there, the beginnings of the majority of the phrases have more weight than their intended goals producing a curiously lopsided effect. The avalanche of low brass that angrily finishes the journey is another sonic knockout, enjoyable on its own but wanting a better-crafted approach to effectively sum up Tchaikovsky’s musical ideas and spectacular soundscape.
Once Petrenko goes after the music ahead of the glorious sound, he could well have a double-threat skill-set with which to unlock the seen but too seldom heard mysteries of our most universal art.