Tchaikovsky / Symphonies 4-5-6 – The Sound of Dubbed Tapes

Sonic Grade: C  

This is a Deutsche Grammophon 4 LP Box Set. I used to really like the sound of this set back in the day, as you will see from the rave review below from 2009.

It’s been a while since I found the sound to be worthy of a Hot Stamper shootout, and now, in 2017, having just played some of the discs against some very good German and British reissues, I now realize the records in the set are clearly made from dub tapes.

They badly lack presence, space, transparency and clarity, all hallmarks of sub-generation master tapes. 

Ten years ago that was not as obvious to me as it is now, but of course that’s the reason we tout the idea of Progress in Audio throughout the site.

And it should be noted that the lack of presence, space, transparency and clarity, as well as the added smear, compression, congestion, as well as poor imaging, are all hallmarks of the Heavy Vinyl reissues offered to the audiophile public in ever increasing numbers.

This is of course yet another case of Live and Learn. Previously we had written:

A Top recommendation from Better Records! The last open copy we had had very good sound and the performances are to die for. Mravinsky really brings this music to life! You’ve never heard Tchaikovsky played with more energy.

This is the review I wrote for the Speakers Corner remastering on 180 gram of the 5th Symphony, which of course is in this box, but not remastered by Speakers Corner (good) and not pressed on 180 gram vinyl (fine by me):

Speakers Corner (SC) has a spotty record in choosing DG titles. Many of the greats have been overlooked while mediocrities have been remastered, some poorly (check out that awful Shostakovich 10th). This is certainly not the case here. This recording is very good for a DG; let’s give it a “B” for sound. The music rates a different grade: A+.

The rave review we wrote for the performances contained in the set is still true; in fact, truer than ever:

This record is a must-own for primarily one reason: the complete mastery of the work that Mravinsky demonstrates throughout the performance. Slow, fast, sombre, exciting, dark, joyous — all the elements are played to perfection. When listening to this record I feel as though the conductor is somehow entering the mind of the composer, recognizing and sympathizing at every moment in the score with the depth of feeling Tchaikovsky wished to convey to the listener. And, back on the earthly plane, succeeding at the most difficult task of all: finding the most infinitely subtle orchestral colors and nuances of tempo and tone capable of expressing such pure emotions musically. If you don’t feel this music at the deepest level, something ain’t workin’ right.

Notes from The Carnegie Hall Selection Committee

This special series has been undertaken by DG under the auspices of the Carnegie Hall Selection Committee. Their report is contained below:

The last three symphonies of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky have long established themselves as cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire of the major orchestras of the world. Virtually every eminent conductor has directed them from the podium and each symphony has been recorded several dozen times. Why, then, it may be asked, should The International Preview Society concern itself with presenting another set of recordings of these familiar works?

The answer to that question is clear and unequivocal: the performances offered here are unique and definitive; the sound quality of the recordings is outstanding; and, finally, the Society’s offering represents the only means of making these distinguished recordings once more available to a discerning and discriminating public in the United States.

Let us now turn to each of these claims in detail.

The artists represented on these discs are the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of its permanent conductor and music director, Yevgeny Mravinsky. The Leningrad Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra in the Soviet Union. It was founded in 1882 as the court orchestra, and it has continued as the leading orchestra of the Republic after 1917. In the early years of the century it was led by such notable maestros as Serge Koussevitsky, Nicolai MaIko, Alexander Gauk and Fritz Stiedry. In 1938, Mravinsky took over as director, a post he holds to the present day.

Yevgeny Mravinsky, acknowledged as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, is little known in this country for several reasons. First, he has rarely travelled outside the Soviet Union, and, second, he has made very few recordings. Consequently, in this electronic age, there were few means for his fame to reach us. As these present recordings make abundantly clear, the loss has been ours. It was not until 1960, when Mravinsky and the Orchestra made their first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, that his genius was revealed to a wide Western public. Those performances, and subsequent ones in London, left the usually staid English critics gasping for superlatives. They were stunned by the brilliance of the orchestra but what left the most lasting impression was the uniqueness of Mravinsky’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky symphonies. As one critic wrote, `It was like looking at a master painting after fifty years of encrusted varnish had been removed.`

Shortly after this tour, Deutsche Grammophon invited Mravinsky and the Orchestra to their studios where these recordings were made. They are still the only recordings made in the West by this conductor. When the discs were first released, they created a sensation, both interpretatively and sonically. However, they have been out of print for a long time, so that it is with particular pride that the Society has commissioned the reissue of them as a complete set … for a collector’s item available only to members of The International Preview Society.

What is so unique about Mravinsky’s interpretation of these familiar and beloved symphonies? To understand that, we need to recognize that, in Western countries, the traditional approach to this Russian composer is highly Romantic. His appeal to us has been through his glorious melodies and brilliant orchestrations. Conductors have placed emphasis on emotional expression, on lushness of sound, on extensive use of rubato and frequent tempo changes. In short — and to put it bluntly — we have wallowed in the music.

Mravinsky, grounded in an entirely different tradition, approaches Tchaikovsky as a classicist. His emphasis is on structure, tightly controlled rhythms, careful attention to the clarity of orchestral textures, and superbly shaded dynamics. The result: it is as if we are hearing the music for the first time. We obtain from these interpretations a sense of structural unity that we never suspected in the music. There is no lack of emotional warmth, of tension and release, of color and brilliance — but these are seen to emerge as natural consequences of the form. In short, the totality of Mravinsky’s vision of Tchaikovsky forces even the most jaded listener to reassess his opinions about the composer.

Of course, such powerful interpretations demand the utmost in orchestral virtuosity and responsiveness. In these performances the Leningrad Philharmonic clearly demonstrates why it deserves its place in the front rank of the world’s orchestras. Moreover, every facet of these performances has been brilliantly captured by the recording engineers — the overall sheen of the orchestra’s tone as well as the individual details of the instrumental choirs. Add to this superior imported pressings and silent surfaces, so that nothing stands between the music and the listener’s enjoyment.

In closing, it is fitting to recall that in 1891 Tchaikovsky came to New York to conduct his music during the opening season of Carnegie Hall. Now, more than three-quarters of a century later, the Carnegie Hall Selection Committee is proud to recommend these superb recordings.

In the words of William Shakespeare, `The wheel has come full circle. I am here.’

– The Committee