, November 2009
Marriner’s 1987 recordings of Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites have been longtime companions in my collection in their original Capriccio incarnations. The suites are among the top candidates in the composer’s canon of orchestral works to win the Orphan Annie award. Even the so-called “Mozartiana” Suite, the last and most popular in the series, has enjoyed but a fraction of the exposure, either in concert or on record, of any of the symphonies, concertos, tone poems, or ballets. Yet the suites came at a time when Tchaikovsky was at the height of his orchestral mastery, in roughly the decade (1879–1887) between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. There is every reason to believe that Tchaikovsky took his compositional efforts on the suites seriously, and saw them as an important step in advancing his orchestral skills before moving on to his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker ballets, and his later tone poems and fantasy overtures—Hamlet, The Storm, Fatum, and The Voyevoda.
To a not insignificant degree, some of the actual music in these suites belies movement titles such as Gavotte, Danse baroque, and Gigue, which would lead one to expect lightweight neo-Baroque divertimento-type pieces. To be sure, Tchaikovsky does not shy away from the lighter side, but there are movements, like the Introduzione e fuga of the Suite No. 1 in D Minor, that are of a symphonic weight and portent that seem to have been conceived for a heavier, more serious orchestral work, perhaps a tone poem with a tragic ending. The Suite No. 4, in contrast, was Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart, but in a way calculated to tease the listener with some brain ticklers. Three of the suite’s four movements are based on relatively obscure Mozart works—at least, they probably were more so at the time than they are now—the Gigue in G Major, K 574, the Minuet in D Major, K 355, and the Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel,” K 455. Only the movement based on the Ave verum corpus, K 618, was likely to have been familiar.
I’ve always liked these Marriner/Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra performances. They seem foamy and frothy where they need to be, and serious and substantive where called for.