“I have great affection for this symphony and deeply regret it has lead such a tragic life,” wrote Tchaikovsky in 1883 about his First Symphony.

Upon graduation from the Conservatory of Music St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky became a staff member moving to Moscow and it was here under the guidance of Nikolay Rubenstein that he began to work on his first symphony in 1865. His first and second attempt both were met with disapproval of his teachers Anton Rubenstein and Nikolay Zaremba. One of the reasons that made this a difficult task was it was done on a part time basis after working all day as a teacher. Being possessed caused sleepless nights, which further added to the aggravation. Also keep in mind that during this time Tchaikovsky was dealing with personal demons of a failed marriage, his homosexuality and hallucinations/insomnia resulting in a nervous breakdown. The second and third movements (adagio and scherzo) were performed in 1867 and were met with mild support. However, the work was subjected to another revision before it was finally performed as a complete work in 1868. This performance received an enthusiastic approval from the audience. Still not wholly satisfied with it Tchaikovsky offered another revision in 1874 and again in 1888. As far as I know it is the 1874 revision that is performed by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev on this SACD CD from Pentatone Classics (PTC5186381). This is not one of his well-performed works but having said that it certainly displays all of the characteristics we’ve grown to love and admire in his work. Tchaikovsky considered the symphonic form a way for him to express his feelings and express them he did. This is a work that is filled with sentiment and emotion!

“Reveries On A Winter Journey” is the title given to the first movement an allegro tranquillo. This winter journey begins slowly with shimmering strings the flutes offering the happy melody until the string section takes over with harmony and counterpoint from the other parts of the orchestra. It slowly builds to a rousing crescendo filled with tension and intrigue and returns to the slow tranquillo pace offer a second theme before it returns to the main theme once again. The pace from Pletnev is a slower one in parts from other recordings I’ve heard and I like it. “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists” is an adagio in the fine tradition of Tchaikovsky. Quiet and delicate it opens with yearning strings, which give way to an oboe driven melody, bassoon lurking in the background with fluttering flutes to complement the lush theme. The “Scherzo” is bubbling with enthusiasm as the strings carry the melody but the woodwinds are quite an active part of the movement. Midway through the theme changes to a slower sentimental one. The theme came from his earlier written Piano Sonata and like the rest of the work. The “Finale,” begins with atypical Russian Folk Song very steeped in tradition. The ominous timpani are a signal and the folk song gives way to a second theme, which cleverly becomes a fugue. The ending is a rousing one as Tchaikovsky often wrote. In this section one can hear the superior playing of the Russian National Orchestra and the clarity of the SACD recording although this reviewer felt the tempo lagged a bit. Perhaps the tempo is more what Tchaikovsky had in mind?

The often-recorded Slavonic March (Marche Slave or Serbo-Russian March) is a patriotic work that combines two different Serbian themes with “God Save The Tsar.” It was written about the Serbian-Ottoman war. If you’re looking for something highly Russian to listen to this is definitely for you. It is recorded in such a way that it is very easy to hear the different sections of the orchestra. I have recordings of this work where it becomes quite muddy and one can only hear the main melody.

Track Listing:

1… Daydreams on a winter journey (13:27)

2… Land of desolation, land of mists (11:47)

3… Scherzo (7:27)

4… Finale (13:21)

5… Marche Slave (9:13)

Total playing time is 55:19