Tschaikovsky for a Winter Afternoon
If you’re considering a splurge on the post-Thanksgiving, 2 PM Nov 30 matinee performance of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 by the NY Philharmonic, it’s probably a good idea. Music Director Jaap Van Zweden is back, and he and the orchestra excel with Rachmaninoff, so this also could be sublime. Tix are pricy: $34 will get you in. The Mozart Wind Serenade in E flat might seem like an odd piece to start the show, but Van Zweden has a knack for making sense of seemingly bizarre segues.
And if you’re looking for a way to warm up for the concert, there’s an excellent, characteristically epic new recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 just out from the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev and streaming at Spotify. Make no mistake about it, this is heavy music: Swan Lake it is not, although it also isn’t completely dark.
The delicately brooding bassoon-and-strings lament that bookends the first movement’s stern, angst-fueled waltz and blustery, swirling crescendos will be a recurrent trope. Likewise, Gergiev and the ensemble stay low to the ground in the grimly murky atmospherics that wind up the first movement, and the melancholy horn melody that opens the second. Mournful bassoon and clarinet eventually rise warily, but not that far. When the plucky basses introduce a secondary theme, that’s a big message, foreshadowing a sudden jolt from nocturnal contentment to sheer horror.
The lickety-split counterpoint of the third movement is downright furtive, and closure doesn’t quite happen with the relative calm of the waltz afterward. For that we have to wait til the triumphant lustre and unexpected, jovial majesty of the finale. And ultimately, it’s too pat: happiness just busting through the clouds without the slightest warning?
So the album’s piece de resistance is the gloomy cumulo-nimbus Russian gothic Symphony No. 4, the opening track. The obvious model is Beethoven’s Fifth, and there are riffs everywhere that Rachmaninoff nicked and took to their logical conclusions with his Second Symphony. The angst police show up with a fanfare; strings sweep down like a flock of vultures, relentlessly; that bassoon and clarinet again!
Momentary cheer gets strutted off to trial or shadowed by a stalker or three. Desolation on some barren steppe gets maximum grandeur. What another orchestra might do as a ballet all the way through, this group introduce as phantasmagoria. Gergiev and the orchestra finally reach Eldorado in the rapidfire overture of the finale, filling the sonic picture, floor to ceiling: they get this troubled masterpiece.