Classical CD Reviews: The Tchaikovsky Project, Schumann Symphonies nos. 2 & 4, and Holst Orchestral Works

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic do justice to a lot of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music, while John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony play Robert Schumann’s famously-dense orchestrations with the utmost clarity and buoyancy. But Michael Stern’s account of The Planets completely lacks in mystery, spirit, and excitement.

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic do justice to a lot of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music in their seven-disc set, The Tchaikovsky Project. The compilation brings together the six numbered symphonies plus the Manfred Symphony, two tone poems (Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini), the Serenade for Strings, and, most curiously, the three piano concertos.

In fact, it’s those last pieces – played to the hilt by Kirill Gerstein – that really elevate this collection. In an era of great pianists, Gerstein, by dint of his brilliant technique, charisma, and extraordinarily engaged musical mind, stands in the top tier. His account of the original version of the familiar First Concerto is all you’d expect: sweeping, lyrical, teeming with drama.

Remarkably, though, with Gerstein the lesser-known Second and Third Concertos are just as compelling. On this album, it’s all but impossible to be caught up in the sheer invention of the Second. Is the piece overlong, structurally diffuse, and sometimes lacking in Tchaikovsky’s best tunes? Yes. But it’s also a thoroughly original take on the grand, 19th-century concerto form and this reading – highlighted by a melting account of the gorgeous middle movement – simply revels in the music’s spontaneity.

The single-movement Third Concerto is a bit trickier: it feels like it ought to belong to something bigger. And, given the fire that Gerstein mines from its pages, you really wish it did. In fact, the only complaint I’ve got is that something’s missing from this box: namely, the two-movement Concert Fantasy, which would really benefit from Gerstein’s advocacy. Regardless, The Tchaikovsky Project’s traversal of the composer’s keyboard concertos is one of the best you’ll find anywhere.

As for the purely orchestral works, Bychkov and the Philharmonic turn in shining performances of the Second and Fourth Symphonies: urgent, turbulent, blazing with color. The Manfred Symphony receives a likewise spirited and (especially in the second movement) delicately-shaded reading, as do Romeo and Juliet and the Serenade for Strings.

A couple of quirks notwithstanding (a sluggish finale to the Symphony no. 3, a sour final cadence at the end of the Pathétique Symphony’s first movement), the remainder of the set is never less than satisfying. Throughout, Bychkov draws playing from the Philharmonic of the utmost sensitivity to details in balance and articulation. As a result, these are truly purposeful performances.

Decca’s engineering is generally fine, though at a few points certain auxiliary instruments (like the harp in Romeo and Juliet) sound like they’re being played in a room across the street from the rest of the ensemble.

To judge from their recently-completed Mendelssohn symphony series, John Eliot Gardiner seems to be the London Symphony Orchestra’s (LSO) go-to-guy for the standard canon. His latest installment on the orchestra’s in-house label, LSO Live, marks the start of the orchestra’s new survey of the Schumann symphonies.

Whether or not one of these is sanctioned is, maybe, beyond the point. To judge from the initial efforts here, Gardiner’s got the LSO playing Schumann’s famously-dense orchestrations with the utmost clarity and buoyancy; maybe that justifies the whole undertaking.

Easily the most interesting thing on this first disc is the inclusion of the original, 1841-version of the Fourth Symphony. Brahms – but not many others, it seems – preferred this edition to the reworking of 1851, and the catalogue isn’t exactly overflowing in recordings of it by orchestras of the LSO’s caliber.

Their reading proves fine, indeed: focused, light on its feet, vigorously rhythmic. Gardiner pays close attention to dynamic shape, which results in a performance that’s colorful and three-dimensional – there’s a winning elegance to the Scherzo’s lilting trio, for instance – but doesn’t lose sight of the score’s big picture or belabor Schumann’s involved motivic writing.

In all, it’s a powerful reading and a terrific performance, easily a benchmark for the original edition of this work.

Gardiner’s Second Symphony, on the other hand, isn’t always as compelling. It starts off preciously enough, the first movement’s phrasings sometimes veering towards the four-square and the brilliant second never quite lifting off.

Over the second half, though, things click and the results are irresistible. A beautiful, soaring account of the melancholy third movement, one that never wants for direction, is followed by a take on the finale that brims with energy and majesty. If this isn’t a Schumann Two that exceeds the sum of its parts, by the end it does just about add up to them.

Capping things off is a lithe, vibrant, winning Genoveva Overture.

There are some fine details to glean from Michael Stern’s new all-Holst disc with his Kansas City Symphony Orchestra (KCSO). The first one is that the ensemble is fantastic: there are no weak instrumental families and the orchestra clearly listens (and matches) across sections.

Another is that Reference Recordings is, perhaps with Pentatone, the label that offers the best recorded sound in recent classical discography. Everything you hear on this disc is cleanly recorded, beautifully balanced, and unfailingly bright.

And yet…

Interpretively, Stern’s account of The Planets is one that is completely lacking in mystery, spirit, and excitement. “Mars” plods. “Venus” is slack. “Jupiter” simply seems lost. You get the idea.

These aren’t simply matters of tempo (though certain movements seem to run a bit slowly). No, it rather seems that Stern’s got little fresh to say about this cornerstone of the 20th-century repertoire. Indeed, his take on this work fails to build on (or offer any alternative take worth considering) to those already on disc from Karajan, Dutoit, Solti, Bernstein, Mehta, Levine, Steinberg, Previn – pretty much anyone, to be honest. Ultimately, this Planets is an opportunity missed.

Not that the orchestra sounds bad. Quite the contrary. There’s terrific clarity to be had here: the KCSO’s string figurations in “Mercury” (and in “Mars” for that matter) are terrifically clear (and impressive). And Holst’s lyrical lines – in “Jupiter” and “Saturn,” for instance – sing, despite sometimes trudging tempos.

The filler, Holst’s ballet The Perfect Fool, fares a bit better, perhaps thanks to its lack of familiarity. Stern draws out the music’s quirky moments (the 7/8 “Dance of Spirits of Earth,” for instance) with a degree of vigor and charm one wishes he had also invested in The Planets.

Regardless, the reading of Fool doesn’t redeem these Planets: you’re not missing anything here.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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