Albert Wolff is best known as conductor of l'Opéra Comique in Paris and in the 1950s made a number of recordings for Decca including complete operas. The many nineteenth century Overtures that he recorded were noted for their excellent sound although most of the LPs were in mono. The stereo era found him recording Adam’s Giselle and Glazunov’s The Seasons but the only Symphonic recording that I can locate is this striking Tchaikovsky Fourth. The sound is vivid with remarkable detail and an exceptionally wide stereo spread; the bass response is surprisingly light. Apart from the unusually shallow timbre of the timpani in their long, quiet sequence of strokes in the first movement, this sparseness of texture makes for spectacularly good early stereo quality. The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra is at its best, although I know that the typical vibrato of the brass section is not to every taste. The Finale is thrilling, not since Riccardo Muti’s version have I heard so wild a tempo for the finale and Wolff surges forward even more urgently in the coda.
The two Carl Schuricht items are in mono and although they date from as early as 1953 the sound is clear and natural. Schuricht’s recordings did seem to benefit from excellent quality in the early days of LP. This is a clear, straightforward Capriccio Italien; then follows just the Theme and Variation Finale from Suite No.3. At around twenty minutes this substantial movement is over half the length of the entire four-part work, and is often played as a separate concert piece. Another recent Eloquence issue features the entire suite recorded three years later in stereo with the same orchestra under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult. The work must have been popular in the 1950s.
Hamburg and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony have interesting connections. Three months after the Saint Petersburg premiere in 1888 Tchaikovsky also conducted the work in Hamburg but, as noted in his diary, he shortened the last movement for that performance.
The Hamburg Radio Symphony Orcherstra featured the Fifth in July 1952 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski (there is a CD transcription of it) and only two months later Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt directed the same musicians in this studio performance. At the time he was criticised for observing the cut in the finale, but since the composer did the same thing in the same city there appears to be some justification.
The performance is not what one might have expected from Schmidt-Isserstedt, who is known for his ‘classical’ approach in his recordings of Beethoven and Mozart. His approach to Tchaikovsky is ‘romantic’ in the conducting tradition favoured by musicians of the late 19th-century such as Richard Wagner and Arthur Nikisch . This reading is surprisingly free in tempo and sometimes reflects the old-fashioned loud-equals-fast-and-quiet-equals-slow style. This could be acceptable in the slow movement where the marking ‘con alcuna licenza’ implies much freedom of expression but elsewhere the changes of speed are disturbing – especially in the outer movements where there are moments of untidiness when speed increases. The recording is adequate, but full orchestra lacks colour because of the modest balance of brass and drums. Yet this sense of distancing does mean that in the slow movement the superbly-played horn solo sounds very beautiful.