Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Debussy / Solti, Chicago

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MOZART Symphony No. 39. TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4. DEBUSSY Trois Nocturnes: Fêtes Georg Solti, cond; Chicago SO ICA 5100 (DVD: 131:00) Live: London 2/2/1985

This concert was the last one presented by the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti during its fifth European tour. If the orchestra’s first appearance in Britain (in Edinburgh in 1971) was something of a vindication for Solti following the stormy tenure he endured at Covent Garden, this one was now part of a well-practiced drill for both conductor and orchestra as conquering victors making a triumphal appearance to receive duly awaited laurels. By this time, only the orchestras of Berlin, Vienna, and the Concertgebouw could seriously presume to contest the claim of the CSO to be the world’s greatest orchestra. If the latter two could at least boast of having a more beautiful sheen of sound, none of them could match the CSO under Solti for sheer precision and brilliance of execution.

Given that, it is a bit of a surprise to encounter in Mozart’s 39th Symphony that opens this program some metrical imprecision in the downward cascading runs of the introduction to the first movement, which lack a clear sense of where the downbeat is. After that minor slip, the performance rights itself under Solti and moves forward with great efficiency. While Solti uses a reduced orchestra with a 12-10-8-6-4 string section deployment, the sound is still quite full compared to those from present-day period instrument ensembles. The interpretation is stylish and well proportioned, though a bit straightforward and lacking the extra lyricism and warmth that a Bruno Walter or Karl Böhm would have brought to it. In short, it is a good performance but not a great one.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth is another matter. In a previous review in 34:4 of a DVD featuring Kurt Sanderling, I complained of both the paucity and quality of available Tchaikovsky Fourths in the DVD medium. This performance corrects the problem in spades. Solti was a superb Tchaikovsky interpreter, one who brought a great tensile strength to the composer’s scores that minimized their structural lacunae and did not overindulge their heart-on-sleeve emotionalism. Here the first movement, with its “Sword of Damocles” motif of Fate, which in lesser hands can seem overly prolix or mawkish, is channeled with a propulsive fury that at the same time does not slight the contrasting interludes of almost balletic grace, the latter being rendered with a delicacy that belies critics who accuse Solti of insensitively running roughshod over every score. Even more surprisingly, the succeeding Andantino is taken at a quite leisurely tempo, with noticeably more rubato and ritards than Solti was wont to employ. The Scherzo likewise is taken at a pace a bit slower than I would have expected, with just a touch of rhythmic stiffness that is my only and minor criticism of this performance. The Allegro con fuoco Finale is indeed fiery, if not taken at quite the hell-for-leather pace of Yevgeny Svetlanov, my benchmark for this work, and the main section dovetails nicely into the coda with the return of the “Damocles” motif. The audience quite properly goes wild immediately after the closing chord, vociferously yelling its approval over tumultuous applause.

“Brilliant” and “sizzling” are not normally the first adjectives that come to mind for performances of Debussy’s music, but they certainly apply to this encore performance of “Fêtes” from the Trois Nocturnes. I for one would never have pegged Solti as a Debussy conductor of the first rank, but he is absolutely terrific here. This rendition positively crackles with drive and bounce; every note, every instrumental part is detailed with stunning clarity and gleaming color, with an unexpectedly witty close to boot. Once again, the audience roars its approval. What a shame not to have the complete Trois Nocturnes from Solti here!

The DVD opens with a three-minute spiel from ICA Classics touting its series of releases from British archives and the Boston Symphony archives. The camerawork is sensible, and the visual resolution is fine; the one drawback is that the recorded sound is very dry, which robs the Tchaikovsky Fourth in particular of some desirable tonal luster. Highly recommended, then, for the Tchaikovsky and Debussy items.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAD 5100

  • UPC: 5060244551008

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Claude Debussy, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Sir Georg Solti

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Orchestra