Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Two works about Tchaikovsky's favorite themes: Fate and love. Two works, also, that highlight why music lovers feel ambivalent about Tchaikovsky's music: art versus kitsch. And finally, two works that demonstrate one of the big problems with today's classical recordings market: repetitious repertoire.
Tchaikovsky sketched a program for the Fifth Symphony's first movement ("Introduction: complete resignation before Fate.... Murmurs, doubts, plaints reproaches against XXX."). Most recent critics have concluded that the "XXX" is his anxiety over his homosexuality, which lends an interesting subtext to the music. The famous "Fate theme," which opens the work and appears in every movement, perhaps hints at the beginning of an earlier, more famous Fifth often associated with Fate: the theme's opening phrase ends with two notes that fall a third, just as in Beethoven's well-known motif. What is somber at the work's beginning brightens by its end, which builds to triumphant finale that just barely succeeds in not overstaying its welcome. (I was a graduate student when I first listened to the symphony with any attention. I remember arriving late for a seminar on medieval peasants because I was sitting rapt by my radio waiting for a recorded performance — I've forgotten whose — to end. I thought it had several times before it finally did.) Tchaikovsky himself grew unhappy with the symphony. Not long after its premiere he wrote: "I have become convinced that the symphony is unsuccessful. There is something repulsive about it, a certain gaudiness and insincerity, artificiality." Structurally it is a little awkward; but it also has some of his loveliest writing in it, including the horn melody of the second movement Andante cantabile, played beautifully here. But do we need another recording of the Fifth?
I popped over to a retail classical music record web site and checked its inventory for both the Fifth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet. I found sixty-one recordings of the symphony and sixty-five of R&J. With such a glut of choices, including, for instance, Gergiev's thrilling live performance of the Fifth at the 1998 Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips 462905-2) and Mariss Jansons' high-octane version with the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos 8351), a new recording of these two old standards is going to have to reach pretty lofty heights to win laurels. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
Not that there's anything wrong with what Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic offer here. The real strength of this Fifth is Gatti's sense of musical line. The various orchestral voices stand out here with noteworthy clarity. Gatti and his musicians do an especially fine job with the third movement Valse, which they play with great delicacy; for me, it is the highlight of the recording. Album annotator George Gelles congratulates Gatti for adhering more closely to Tchaikovsky's metronome markings than other recordings (and how tiresome the argument from metronome has become since critics started batting it about over Beethoven's score marks). Actually, as I count it, Gatti's tempos are often just a hair's-breadth faster than Tchaikovsky's indications, which imparts considerable energy to the forward drive of the first movement. However, though Gatti's tempos in the last movement aren't slow, it can feel sluggish, especially in its last half. The electricity that should drive the exuberant finale never really reaches full capacity here, compared to, say, Gergiev or Jansons. I find myself unmoved by the symphony's outer movements and more impressed by Gatti's thoughtfulness of execution in the inner two.
Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet occupies about the same pinnacle in the classical catalogue of warhorses that Romeo and Juliet themselves occupy in the catalogue of star-crossed lovers. (Working definition of a warhorse: any classical music that's been heard in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.) It takes a mighty effort to suppress a grin (or maybe a groan) when R&J's "love theme" first wells up, and then wells up again... and again. Still, once that effort is made, Romeo and Juliet is a stirring — or maybe just manipulative — twenty minutes of music. Gatti seems to grasp this in his performance, and he rises to the challenge of how to make this ear candy sound fresh. After all, it's not a piece that demands a lot of subtle listening to grasp. It opens with a hymn-like theme supposedly meant to evoke Friar Lawrence, moves on to a very literally evoked sword fight between Capulets and Montagues rendered with a lot of staccato cymbal crashes, and then rises to the legendary treacly love theme. All of this get repeated with not a lot of new things to say and then, once the tragic lovers have shuffled off this mortal coil, ends again with the wistful hymn. It is the very model of melodrama. Googling the combination "Romeo and Juliet" and "pops concert," confirms that the work is to the regional orchestral scene what mosquitoes are to the summer festival. You can still "get it" while you sit in your lawn chair, pop open a soda, stargaze with one eye and keep the other on the kids.
By now it's clear that I'm not exactly worshiping at the altar of Romeo and Juliet. Even considering late nineteenth-century musical sensibilities, it is as close to musical kitsch as a serious composer can come. Along with the 1812 Overture and the Marche slave, it will always make us pause before we finally admit that Tchaikovsky, when he trusted his greater talents, was a great composer. (After all, we forgive Beethoven Wellington's Victory.) That said, I have to confess that Gatti does bring some life to this old chestnut. He beautifully modulates the soft string crescendo at the first entrance of the love theme, and the dueling motif between the Capulets and Montagues really catches fire. It has the sort of energy I wish he had mustered for the finale of the Fifth Symphony.
The Symphony was recorded last summer at the Abbey Road Studios. Romeo and Juliet was recorded at Watford Colosseum outside London in May 1998 (and is doubly an old chestnut, since this recording is a reissue of an old Conifer disc.) The sound of Romeo and Juliet is warmer and obviously has the more natural ambience of a concert hall. The strings are rich, but the woodwinds sound more distantly recorded than the rest of the orchestra, which is a minor distraction. The symphony's studio sound is better balanced and captures the orchestral voices with greater fidelity, but it sometimes lacks depth.
A CD like this again raises the question of what the marketers of classical music are thinking. With wagonloads of other, finer recordings of the Fifth Symphony and with plenty of less popular Tchaikovsky waiting in the wings to serve as filler (Francesca da Rimini, Hamlet, the Tempest), why do we need yet another Fifth and — can't somebody stop them — another Romeo and Juliet? With such abundance on the market, couldn't Harmonia Mundi France find something a little more original to showcase the considerable talents of Gatti and his orchestra?