They say that a composer’s first symphony is like the first pancake; it never turns out any good. Not so in the case of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, “Winter Dreams.” It not only turned out good, it turned out way better—a masterpiece, really—than did his next two symphonies, the “Little Russian” (No. 2) and the “Polish” (No. 3). And if the pancake simile needn’t apply to composers’ first symphonies, it surely needn’t apply to the conductors conducting them.
This is the first installment in a new cycle of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies by Yuri Botnari leading the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Let me mention at the outset that although this release came to me as a physical CD in nothing but a cardboard sleeve with no notes, I’m given to understand, based on an email from the maestro himself, that at present, the album is available for download and streaming only, and may be found at yuribotnari.hearnow.com, with buttons/links to the most popular downloading and streaming services—Apple Music, Amazon, CD Baby, Deezer, iTunes, and Spotify. It can also be downloaded or streamed from the Royal Music Society’s website, royalmusicsociety.us. And for a limited time, it’s available as a free download from CD Baby, though by the time you read this that offer may have expired.
From 1998 to 2002, Yuri Botnari worked as an assistant to renowned Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Then, in 2003, Botnari performed on tour with the Moscow Philharmonic, an orchestra that had been led by a number of Russia’s most celebrated conductors—Kirill Kondrashin, Dmitri Kitaenko, Vassily Sinaisky, Mark Ermler, and Yuri Simonov, to name a “Mighty Five.” Though Botnari now serves as Principal Conductor of the Barcelona Philharmonic, he has been named Conductor Laureate of the Moscow Philharmonic, and he serves as President of U.S.-based Royal Music Society, of which this recording is a production.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, written by the 26-year-old composer on the eve of beginning his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, is how effortlessly and naturally it seems to flow from his pen, as if gliding on the wings of inspiration. Yet, in reality, the work cost him dearly in terms of struggle and anxiety over his material, leading the young composer to a near mental collapse.
Tchaikovsky’s main problem, it seems, was something all young men, not just composers experience—most much sooner—and that is the genetically programmed imperative to rebel. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was his shot fired, his statement of rebellion against Anton Rubinstein and the conservative musical establishment at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he had been a student. Rubinstein’s reaction to the symphony, when Tchaikovsky showed him the score, was predictable. In its current state it wasn’t fit to be performed, and wouldn’t be unless and until Tchaikovsky agreed to make extensive changes.
Even after those changes were made, Rubinstein still expressed reservations, but agreed to lead a performance of the second and third movements. The reception was disappointing, but it was just the jolt Tchaikovsky needed to trigger his rebellion. In a fit of pique, he discarded all but one of the revisions that Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba (another of Tchaikovsky’s St. Petersburg teachers) had insisted on, and returned with his score to Moscow, where, in a snub to Rubinstein, he dedicated the symphony to Rubinstein’s younger brother Nikolai, founder of the Moscow Conservatory where Tchaikovsky had been appointed to the faculty. Years later, in 1883, Tchaikovsky would write to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck that “although it [the First Symphony] is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than any of my other more mature works.”
Whether it has more substance and is better or not is debatable, but I don’t agree that it’s immature. I find a magical, fairy-tale-like quality to the music that reminds me of the composer’s much later Nutcracker ballet to come (1892), especially the scene that ends act I, in which snowflakes dance around the Prince and Clara as they walk through a moonlit forest. There’s much of that same enchanted atmosphere and pristine beauty in the symphony. In terms of gravitas—of dealing with weighty and profound issues of the human condition—“Winter Dreams” may not be Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphony, but it’s the one, in my opinion, that contains his most beautiful music, just as Mozart’s Magic Flute contains the most beautiful music among his operas, while no one would argue that it’s his greatest or most important stage work. But in both cases, the music has the feeling of sublimity and grace.
There’s only one word for this performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony and the recording of it, and that word is thrilling. Rarely, if ever, have I heard the first movement so effectively conjure the imagery of a sleigh ride through freshly fallen powdery snow in the countryside, or the second movement convey such a palpable feeling of intense Russian yearning. The details in the scoring that Yuri Botnari brings out and that emerge from the recording are amazing. Botnari and the Moscow orchestra catch the offbeat rhythms and accents of the Scherzo to perfection, and by the time they reach the finale, spring has sprung, the snow has melted, and they end the symphony in a blaze of glory.
Heretofore, I’ve long had a special affection for the recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which dates back to 1971. There are other outstanding ones too by Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Doráti with the London Symphony Orchestra, and more recently from two conductors whose Tchaikovsky cycles I followed and reviewed favorably, those by Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra, and Dmitri Kitaenko with the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra.
This one by Yuri Botnari and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra outclasses them all. Anyone who hears this performance would surely agree with me that this is Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful symphony. To no small degree, Botnari, the orchestra’s players, the recording engineer Pavel Lavrenenkov, and the acoustics of Moscow’s Rachmaninoff Concert Hall have made it so.