« Children And Grandchildren | Main | What Can I Say? I’m a Guy; It’s What We Do »

Views And Reviews: Capriccio Italien

"Not recommendable for its recording quality, especially for headphone listeners, but worth hearing for some good playing, and sometimes very insightful conducting,'' writes Paul Serotsky, reviewing a recording of Tchaikovsky's music played by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Capriccio Italien, op. 45 (1880)
Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1869-80)
Dance of the Tumblers, from Incidental Music: “The Snow Maiden”, op. 12 (1873)
Marche Slav, op. 31 (1876)
Festival Overture “1812", op. 49 (1880)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.555923, Recorded at Grand Concert Studio of Nat. Radio Co., Kyiv, Ukraine, 19-22 August 2001

On looking at this CD my immediate reaction was, “Oh no, not again!” In all honesty, it has to be said that the R.E.D. book would be substantially less overweight without the cholesterol-packed surfeit of these pieces. It also has to be said that companies wouldn’t keep churning them out, like so many Big Macs, if there wasn’t any money in it. The $64,000 question is, “Who buys them all?” I’m blowed if I know, but then looking at my own collection I find that I already have two 1812s and no fewer than four Romeo and Juliets – and this one’ll bring those scores to “three” and “five”. Seeing as I only set out to have one of each, I’m not even sure where the others came from. Should I be worried?

Anyway, one nice touch on this CD is the inclusion of a much less well-known item to divide the war-horses into two stables. It’s not entirely unknown, though, as Naxos already boasts a recording (8.553856, no MusicWeb review available!) of the complete Snow Maiden incidental music. The two versions of the gloriously invigorating Dance of the Tumblers tend to be complementary. Both the Moscow SO under Igor Golovchin in the complete recording and NSOU/Kuchar on the present disc give it all it’s got, which is plenty! In fact, their timings differ by only one second. While the NSOU finds more detail in the percussion, the Moscow first trumpet leaves his Ukrainian counterpart stranded on the starting-line. Golovchin’s woodwind sound very remote so that, with the distinctly “left or right” placing of the rest of the orchestra in a murky recording, they are at risk of vanishing down the “hole in the middle”. Curiously, this is a problem with this number only: the remaining 19 tracks sound fine. Kuchar’s recording suffers the same tendency, but is much clearer and better balanced. However there’s something badly amiss in the microphone phasing – headphone listening is definitely not recommended!

Go to the start of the Capriccio Italien, and that “hole” is well and truly plugged, by shining trumpets, with horns to the right and trombones/tuba to the left. Kuchar’s view is a thoughtful one, which is fine for the long, slow introduction – and, by golly, it does sound slow. It’s only Kuchar’s considerate moulding of the phrases and the central crescendo that keeps it from seeming interminable. Yet, this is only an introduction, a reposeful context which by contrasting them is supposed to enliven the two dancing sequences. Sadly, having successfully slowed our heartbeats, in the first dance sequence Kuchar fails to quicken them again: these dances just don’t catch fire the way they do in Antal Dorati’s hands. On the plus side, Kuchar – and the orchestra – do start to wake up for the Tarantella and happily finish on a high note. The recording here is much better, although the sound doesn’t really open out as you’d expect in the climaxes. It’s not “congested”, though, just a bit “limited”.

Romeo and Juliet is one of those pieces that almost plays itself, which is a compliment to the craft of the composer. However, the watchword is “almost”! For instance, I heard a performance in Huddersfield Town Hall a short while back (September 2003) in which the conductor tightened up the bolts of the introduction. By injecting that bit of edge, accentuating the real relationship of the themes to the “fighting” main allegro passages, he took the music out of the cloisters of “Friar Lawrence”, where it doesn’t belong, and into the streets of Verona, where it does. All was quiet, but you could feel that there was trouble brewing. I sat up in anticipation – and was sorely disappointed! They forgot to deliver the “trouble” itself.

This recording brought equal disappointment, though for different reasons. Kuchar hovers in the doorway between the cloisters and the street. He moulds the music beautifully, and the playing is sensitive to his demands. The first big crescendo is a cracker, with the strings bringing out some fizzing tremolandi that fair set my teeth on edge and the horns cutting through magnificently. Again, I sat up in anticipation – and again was sorely disappointed. The love music is fine, the initial entry especially sweet, but as soon as the big climaxes loom something goes badly wrong. It’s not the playing, or at least I don’t think so. The bass drummer sounds as if he’s using the fag end of a snare-drum stick: it lacks dead weight, sounding more like an extra kettledrum. However, that’s not the real problem, which is that the sound is all over the place. I have the impression that every time things got aggressively loud the recording engineer panicked. With the sonic “image” wavering and wobbling like (I imagine) a gargantuan jelly on a plate, it’s impossible to focus on the playing. If I were you, for cracking performances in top-notch modern sound I’d stick with Sian Edwards (EMI) or Claudio Abbado (DG). The latter in particular, at least on my original LP, at the one extreme produces some meltingly tender moments in the “rocking” theme, and at the other has bass drum and cymbals that’ll bring tears to your eyes.

By turns gloomy, pompous, nervous, jolly, boisterous and aggressive – though not necessarily in that order! – this performance of Marche Slav is about as energetic as you could wish. Kuchar again shows his aptitude for crescendo-building, and the players of the NSOU clearly enjoy every minute. However, yet again the recorded sound is a let-down. Right from the gun there’s a “corkscrewing” effect which seems to be due to mismatched frequency-dependent microphone phasing, or something along those lines. Towards the end, as the sound level hits the top, there’s a “tunnelling” of the image which suggests some misjudged selective fader activity.

Now, the finale, the warhorse di tutti warhorses! I get the impression that the orchestra really enjoyed playing this, which as a piece of graphic music is not half as bad as its composer made out. Kuchar manages the awkward ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky’s patchwork of genius with a keen eye for the overall drama. At the start he coaxes from the cellos some playing of exceptional tenderness. Similarly, by finding more dynamic nuances than many, he amplifies the lyrical interludes into gorgeous full-blown balletic adagios – for once in my life I didn’t find myself getting ever so slightly fidgety, waiting for the next Big Blast! Kuchar is also good at “pregnant pauses” and, as we’ve come to expect from the other pieces in the programme, he cranks the crescendos emerging from those pauses to terrific effect. The belligerent climaxes, with the mottos of the opposing forces ringing out across the musical battlefield, are attacked with considerable venom. In the recording there’s still a slight but noticeable, nagging aura of nervous fader twiddling – the acoustic seems to bulge and billow slightly, with instruments prone to moving in and out, even in mid-phrase.

Orchestrally, the infamous denouement continues on the same plane. Now, I know that cannon and church bells were indicated in the score, but that was for the intended but unrealised ceremonial, outdoor performance. The actual first performance eventually took place under normal concert hall conditions, and there are no reports of any “special effects”. As far as I can tell, our modern obsession with the cannon and bell effects dates from the pioneering Mercury recording made in the 1950s. Actually, I should say “two”, because the original was made in mono., and Mercury re-did the entire works for stereo. Attempts in the concert hall to reproduce the “outdoor” effects generally range from feeble to farcical, and frequently encompass both. The thing is, if you can’t make these effects impressive, which is to say “utterly convincing”, which is not the same as “extremely loud”, then it’s best to leave them out altogether.

In the recording studio, as Mercury so eloquently proved, the implementation of cannon and bell effects should be a doddle. On this recording, they get half of it almost right. Rather than messing about with clutches of feeble orchestral chimes, they’ve dubbed the clangour of real church bells. It’s a lovely noise, but I’m sure it shouldn’t continue right through the peroration of the Russian quickstep and God Save the Czar – Mercury were so fastidious, I can’t imagine they got it wrong when they stopped the bells as the quickstep started, with just one more short blast of bells just before the end. For some reason, possibly time and cost, the Naxos engineers have used a monophonic bells track, a “ha’porth o’ tar” move which carves a chunk out of the intended spectacular impact. I fear we shall have to wait a while longer before we hear anything to match the awe-inspiring depth, brilliance and amplitude of the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, as captured by Mercury.

What of the cannon effects? I regret to relate that they did attempt these. I don’t know what they used, but – certainly in the more exposed first salvo – it sounds suspiciously like they went outside and recorded some irate businessman slamming his car door. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that nearly 50 years on, and with more new technology than you can shake a cat at, that we could produce a convincing cannon sound? Well, it seems, we can’t. What a pity, but thank your God that the Mercury recording is still around, and superbly remastered at that.

So many fine Naxos recordings now grace the catalogue, but this isn’t one of them, not by a long chalk. There is some lovely and lively playing from the NSOU, especially in the Marche Slav and most notably in the 1812. Kuchar is a thoughtful and dynamic conductor who manages to find some new things to say – which couldn’t have been easy, given the content of the programme. However, with a regretful nod in the direction of the engineers, I have to say that the performers are not well-served by the recording. I would even hazard, though this is to some extent guesswork, that they did the recordings from “flat cold” – possibly still in the process of setting up even as the tape rolled – starting with Marche Slav and Romeo and Juliet, moving on to Dance of the Tumblers, thence to 1812, and finishing with Capriccio Italien. I could be wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is that it sounds like it, and it shouldn’t.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.