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Thinking Man's Tchaikovsky: Three Recordings that Avoid the Gushy Stereotype

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Concert halls don’t suffer from any lack of Tchaikovsky these days. Classical music’s most hyper-emotive Romantic ranks just behind Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms on a list of the most-performed composers by American orchestras, according to a 2008-09 survey.

This year, the Russian composer has received an extra shot of pop culture adrenaline thanks to the film “Black Swan,” which incorporated Swan Lake into its lurid tale of a demented ballerina. And before we know it, amphitheaters across the country will be rocking to the sounds of the 1812 Overture and fireworks as Americans celebrate July Fourth. Which isn't always a bad thing. But there are some artists taking a more creative, even brainy approach to the composer. Here are three standouts this spring.

Tchaikovsky And Shakespeare: Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet
Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Available at

Hot Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been busy recording much of the standard repertoire as part of his Deutsche Grammophon contract but he has shown a particular affinity with Tchaikovsky. This album of Shakespeare-inspired works contains two comparative rarities, both worthwhile.

The Tempest doesn’t have a sweeping theme like Romeo & Juliet and its structure is fairly simple, yet it abounds in the brilliant orchestration and ominous atmospheres one might normally find in Berlioz. Slightly better known is the Hamlet Overture-Fantasy, which echoes the Danish prince's dark moods and tragic destiny. For the perennially crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet, Dudamel and his charges in the Simon Bolivar Symphony tamp down on the schmaltz for which it has been associated. Instead, the focus turns to the battling strings of the middle section and the earthy yet curiously subdued conclusion.


Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra Op. 31. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim, conductor
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(available 6/7)

We know what you're thinking: another Tchaikovsky Sixth? But this new recording has its own raison d'être. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a unique collaboration between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim (as the conductor indicated this week in a column for the Jerusalem Post, it remains unable to perform in many of the countries which are represented in it). Back-story aside, the group’s playing is uniformly excellent in the Pathetique, with rich-toned strings and white-hot brass. Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra couldn't be more dissimilar stylistically, with its modernist use of the 12-tone method. Still, when presented beside the Tchaikovsky, one hears moments of wistfulness and even romantic yearning.


Tchaikovsky, Kissine Piano Trios
Gidon Kremer (violin), Giedr Dirvanauskait (cello), Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
Pre-order at
(available 6/7)

Two ends of the Russian chamber music tradition are placed side-by-side on this quietly compelling ECM release. It is all too easy for the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio to get bogged down in sentiment and density of texture, but the Gidon Kremer's ensemble finds a way of keeping the fabric transparent and airy while adding a kind of raw authenticity. Victor Kissine's 2009 Zerkalo ("The Mirror") was written for these players in 2009 and is unabashedly modern, full of ominous piano patterns and ghostly, fragmented violin and cello lines. Kremer’s searing violin and Buniatishvili’s rippling piano lines to seem to echo Tchaikovsky’s opening movement gestures from over 125 years earlier.