I discovered this work relatively early in my years of serious music appreciation and I have loved it ever since. As my musical experience and knowledge has grown, my appreciation and understanding of the brilliance of this work has continued to grow. After its composition, Tchaikovsky declared it as one of his greatest works. At a later time, he was to voice a different opinion, but this was a very common practice for Tchaikovsky.
Musicologically it is strictly not regarded as a symphony as it does not employ sonata form in its structure. But then the same could be said about a number of modern symphonies. To the listener, it looks like a symphony, and sounds like a symphony, even though it is written to the story of an epic poem, making it also a tone poem. For years I have been seeking my ideal performance of this work, a work that is possibly more technically demanding than any of the numbered symphonies. Although over the decades, it has been pushed in the background, given a receptive hearing, it emerges as among his most rewarding works.
There is no need for me to go into the musical sequence of the work, as another reviewer has done this quite thoroughly already. But before commenting as to why I regard this the best recording available, I must do what is not quite the right thing to do, and comment on other reviews.
It takes a little intelligence to see that the two star review really contributes nothing: the reviewer may have listened to much music, but appears to have gained little knowledge or understanding in the process. But I must comment on the sound of this recording, after the critical comments made elsewhere. I have been a practising musician, both conducting (amateur) and playing the piano, as well as regularly attending concerts for many years. It has always been important to me that my sound equipment used should give me as close a representation of the true sound of a performance as possible. Which has led me to invest $20,000 in a carefully chosen sound system. And on this basis, I can comment that I was very impressed with the sound quality of this release. I find no sense of the curtain between orchestra and listener, and was so impressed with the quality of sound that I wondered if Naxos had used 24-bit recording in this case. But, on comparison with known good 24-bit recordings, I believe this is probably just a good example of standard specifications used for the recording. To come out of the stratosphere, I also listened to the CD on a system costing just under $1,000 - but one chosen very carefully. My impressions of the sound quality remained the same. The recording is not given ultra-close microphone placement, a technique sometimes used to provide a greater sense of spectacle to the sound. To me the placement is ideal, giving clarity to solo playing, but good blend to ensemble sections in the music. That said, on to the performance.
The work, being based on Byron's poem which is dramatic yet reflecting a psychologically almost schizophrenic nature, is highly contrasted, demanding playing ranging from extreme delicacy and beauty, to intense dramatic power. At the same time, it should reflect the Russian qualities in Tchaikovsky's composition. In my rather large collection of performances of this work, that last aspect is often missing, as is adequate consideration of the poem on which it is based.
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst a very competent body, would not be considered, I think it fair to say, among the very best of the world's Orchestra's. But in this performance, under the hands of Petrenko, they rise to a standard I have never heard from them in the past. In quiet passages, strings take on a subtle beauty, which is also found in the interplays of the woodwind solos and elsewhere. At its full power, and I suspect players have been added to the Orchestra's normal complement, we hear Tchaikovsky at the height of his Russian passion. I must disagree with some minor comments by another reviewer, such as where some slow passages were found to be a little dragging, I found great beauty. In fact the entire performance is marked by its unity of conception, and its realization of the subtleties in the scoring.
Having given close study to those recordings I have acquired of this work over the years in my search for the ideal, I believe that in this case I have found a conductor totally in tune (no pun intended) with the score and its literary background, and an Orchestra that has risen above itself to meet the occasion. I need search for my ideal no longer.
There are probably two relatively modern recordings that offer serious competition. The Jurowski recording with the LPO is beautifully played, but I find the conductor loses the pulse of the music from time to time, and some quiet passages, rather than emerging as beautiful examples of Tchaikovsky's writing, to me are soporific. The recording also has a slightly reduced dynamic range compared to the one under review. The closest competition comes from Pletnev. This is certainly a wonderful performance, but I feel it is no better than the present one, and has more constricted sound with some slight sonic artefacts.
So after many recordings and years of searching, I have no hesitation in giving this recording a well-earned five-star rating and hope it is the source for others discovering the greatness of one of Tchaikovsky's more neglected treasures. And the rarely-heard "Voyevoda" is a well-played excellent fill.