Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, subtitled Winter Dreams, was composed when he was 26. It’s probably the best of his neglected early symphonies. Its gorgeous first movement conjures up images of young Romanov aristocrats being swept in sleighs through a winter wonderland and anticipates the snow scene in The Nutcracker ballet.
Young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St Luke’s capture the magic here. My favourite version has always been the old DG Boston Symphony with a young Michael Tilson Thomas. These forces run them close. They give the second movement a uniquely Russian sense of rhapsodic yearning and exquisite melancholy, with beautifully detailed woodwind solos equally beautifully captured. It’s not the sort of repertoire one expects from Harmonia Mundi but the recording is superb!
I don’t think The Tempest is quite out of the same drawer. While the opening depiction of the ocean is brilliant (it reminded me of Rimsky-Korsakov’s later evocation of the ocean in his Tsar Sultan Suite), the work tries to be both a mood picture and a psychological portrait of the main characters – Miranda and Ferdinand and their blossoming love, the grossness of Caliban, (cellos and double basses) and the grave dignity of Prospero. All this is well captured with abundant mystery, but it doesn’t seem quite as at home here as in the Symphony. Nonetheless, heartily recommended.