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Five Stars: Superb Tchaikovsky Symphonies from Yuri Botnari & MPO

May 6, 2021 | By Ken Meltzer
Fanfare Magazine

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian” ?  Yuri Botnari, cond; Moscow PO ? ROYAL MUSIC SOCIETY 10051 (39:03)

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TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 3 “Polish” ?  Yuri Botnari, cond; Moscow PO ? ROYAL MUSIC SOCIETY 10052 (51:53)

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TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5 ?  Yuri Botnari, cond; Moscow PO ? ROYAL MUSIC SOCIETY 10054 (46:55)

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In recent months, my interest has been piqued by Fanfare colleagues’ glowing reviews of recordings from the Royal Music Society of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, with Yuri Botnari conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Jerry Dubins (Sept/Oct 2019: 43:1) and Daniel Morrison (Nov/Dec 2019: 43:2) reviewed the recording of Symphony No. 1, while Colin Clarke (Jan/Feb 2020: 43:3) and Dubins (Mar/April 2020: 43:4) had the honors for Nos. 4 and 6. My colleagues’ enthusiasm inspired me to acquire these recordings, and I find myself in complete accord with their positive reactions. Botnari’s RMS Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings document the work of a thoughtful and passionate conductor, someone who has a great deal of insight to communicate, and the technical gifts to achieve that end. There are several outstanding aspects of Botnari’s approach to the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. First and foremost is the care he takes in shaping phrases. Every moment is sculpted with the utmost attention, and with the intent of relating it to the work as a whole. And so, for example in the “Pathétique”, Botnari conducts the bassoon phrase at the start of the opening Adagio so that it is clearly the ancestor of the furtive string melody that launches the main Allegro non troppo. Likewise, the relationship between the sighing, descending string melody in the trio portion of the “Pathétique’s” second movement, and the death sequence of the Symphony’s concluding measures is unmistakable. Botnari’s Tchaikovsky interpretations impress me as adopting the approach advocated by Rachmaninoff, who believed every piece of music had its culminating “point”. Botnari cultivates the music so that Tchaikovsky’s “point” in each Symphony makes its most telling effect. This is not to say that Botnari shortchanges other (non-“point”) moments. For example (again in the “Pathétique”), Botnari observes just enough of a period of silence between the opening movement’s descending clarinet passage and ensuing fortissimo explosion launching the Allegro vivo to give this familiar sequence a stark, overwhelming power. I’m guilty of focusing on the Tchaikovsky 6 in my examples. But in truth, such level of care is evident throughout the First and Fourth Symphonies, too.

Botnari’s default tempos are, in general, neither remarkably fast nor slow. Within his chosen basic pulse, Botnari engages in liberal flexibility of phrasing; appropriate for Tchaikovsky’s Romantic voice, and never at the expense of the musical line. Listen, for example, to how Botnari ratchets up the tension at the conclusion of the opening and closing movements of the Fourth. The conductor gives the music room to breathe, and to build to a headlong frenetic, shattering climax. And what a pleasure it is to hear Tchaikovsky’s orchestral bass voice, anchored by the lower strings, given its full due. Botnari, like Wilhelm Furtwängler, most definitely builds the music from the “ground up,” with the foundation of the deep voices always evident. The Moscow PO plays these works with a richness and beauty of tone. Special mention must be made of the wind solos, which are unfailingly full of character and point. All told, Botnari-Moscow PO versions of Symphonies 1, 4, and 6 represent music-making of the highest order.

After hearing these superb renditions of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, I visited Amazon’s streaming service to audition some other Botnari recordings. They included the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (Moscow Grand Hall SO), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 (Romanian Radio Orchestra). Both performances evidence the strengths found in the Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle; a masterful grasp of the works’ architecture, thoughtful and eloquent phrasing, and a keen sense of momentum without resorting to haste or a metronomic approach. In particular, the Beethoven Second offered a striking contrast to many of today’s HIP performances (which I admire too, on their own terms). In the Romanian RO Beethoven Second, Botnari does not seek to replicate the sonority of period instruments, or to observe all of Beethoven’s score repeats and fleet metronome markings. What Botnari does is lead a Beethoven Second that radiates affection for the score with lovely orchestral sonority, meticulous phrasing, and an overarching sense of energy and joy for life. In short, Yuri Botnari impresses me as a gifted musician who has much to communicate about the music he conducts.

Given this background, imagine my delight when I received these artists’ recordings of the remaining numbered (sans Manfred) Symphonies (2, 3, and 5). The strengths evident in the recordings of 1, 4, and 6 may be found here as well. Botnari opens the “Little Russian” Symphony with an expansive and flexible rendition of the Andante sostenuto introduction, meticulously sculpting its progression so that the ensuing Allegro vivo is both the natural culmination of, and release from, the mounting tension. Crisp articulation, irrepressible momentum, and beguiling rubato combine for an opening movement that maintains its tension and interest from start to finish. The ensuing march is both sprightly and elegant, and the central episode offers just the right amount of contrasting nostalgia and introspection. Botnari and the Moscow PO revel in the third movement scherzo’s quicksilver energy and kaleidoscope of instrumental colors. In the finale, the artists strike an ideal balance between Tchaikovsky’s brilliant fantasia on an exuberant Russian folk song, and the subsidiary elegant violin melody. The performance crackles with anticipation and energy, plunging headlong to the final bars. At 39:03, the performance is slightly longer in TT than the norm, but I never for a second felt the music lacked direction or propulsion. Quite the contrary, this is a performance that brims with momentum, all the more so because of Botnari’s attentive and flexible approach.

Among the Tchaikovsky Six Symphonies, the Third (“Polish”) is the one that comes closest to exceeding its welcome. With five movements totaling about 45 minutes, it lacks the relative brevity and concision of the “Little Russian”, not to mention the innovation and drama of the magnificent final trilogy. You might imagine that Botnari and the Moscow PO’s performance, timing out at nearly 52 minutes, might push the envelope more than a bit. But once again, the results are splendid. The greatest disparity between Botnari’s tempos and those of more “conventional” performances may be found in the first two movements. For the opening movement’s introduction, Botnari takes Tchaikovsky’s Tempo di marcia funebre modification of the basic Moderato assai to heart. The second movement Alla tedesca is likewise performed at a strikingly broad pace. But in both cases, Botnari phrases with such care, purpose, and affection that the pulse and interest never flag. The remaining three movements adopt mainstream tempos, but with the enhancement of the artists’ keen imagination and affection for the music. The concluding Polonaise has all the requisite swagger and energy one could hope for, bringing the Symphony to a rousing close.

The recording of the great Fifth Symphony is a winner in all respects. Tchaikovsky’s opening movement brims with rich thematic material, from the slow-tempo introduction’s initial presentation of the recurring “fate” motif, to the various principal themes of the ensuing Allegro con anima. It’s a tall order to establish a constant flow and sense of connection. And in truth, it’s quite possible to have an effective performance of this movement that fails to achieve those specific ends. But once again, Botnari adopts just the right tempos and flexibility of approach so that all seems inevitable. And that inevitability generates a momentum that never lags. In the final measures, Botnari and the Moscow PO revel in the sepulchral hue of Tchaikovsky’s scoring for bassoons, timpani, and lower strings, and the affect is quite arresting. The second movement’s radiant horn solo, here gorgeously voiced and phrased, launches music-making of the utmost tenderness and lyricism, making the dual implacable voicings of the fate motif all the more frightening. The third-movement waltz, elegant in tone and phrasing, yields to the winds’ keenly articulated and insinuating reprise of the fate motif, setting up the finale. In the opening measures of the fourth movement, Tchaikovsky casts the fate motif in the major key for the first time. Botnari’s subdued interpretation makes it clear that there must first be an epic battle before the struggle is finally won. That battle is magnificently depicted; first of course by Tchaikovsky, and then by Botnari and the Moscow PO, who lend their (by now) familiar crisp articulation, richness of tone, and eloquent phrasing to the proceedings. And as in the finale of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Botnari holds in check the tension of the final episode just long enough to make the concluding Presto the breathless moment of apotheosis Tchaikovsky intended.

These recordings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, and 5 complete the Botnari-Moscow PO cycle, and it is as fine a collection of the works as one might encounter. My personal favorite (of recordings in modern sound) has long been the survey by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos). They are marvelous performances, beautifully recorded. No doubt my affection for the set is enhanced by the fact that I had the privilege of working with Maestro Jansons during the time he was the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Music Director. But truth be told, I loved the Oslo PO Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings even before I met Jansons. In any event, the Botnari-Moscow PO recordings represent (at the very least) an equally distinguished traversal of these great Russian orchestral works. The level of music-making, both from an interpretive and technical perspective, is consistently of the highest quality. The sound quality, too, is superb; full-bodied, detailed, and without a hint of artificiality. I listened to these recordings several times, with unabated interest and pleasure. I recommend them to you with the greatest enthusiasm.

Ken Meltzer

Five Stars: Superb Tchaikovsky Symphonies from Yuri Botnari and the Moscow PO



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