I started rehearsing Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony this past Monday with the Montclair State University Symphony and am struck by how different an experience it is to hear this music live vs. on a recording.
By just looking at the score, one can easily see that Tchaikovsky can't compose music that is developmental in any way shape or form! What can he do? He writes timeless melodies and spins them out one after the other in orchestral clothing that is slightly altered with each utterance, and his orchestrational vocabulary, while handy, certainly is not overly colorful.
When I hear his music on a recording, somehow the sound is just not as powerful because of the limited compositional technique involved. I tend to daydream when I listen to his music as it repeats material again and again! That's not such a bad thing on many levels as some look for escapism, but music at its essence I would hope engages you in the present rather than lulling you to other environs. Listening to it through a stereo, even on a high end sound system, still seems to me to make the sound more compact, less expansive, and ultimately, less singing in nature. And in the real world of live music, instruments are always yearning to find the expressive potential of the voice.
However, when I hear the music in live space, the sound is much more open, vibrant, alive, singing, and expressive than what you hear on a recording. All of sudden the sumptuous melodies of this symphony come back again and again like a hug from your child - it's something that remains fresh each and every time, and the experience of hearing the work in this atmosphere changes the entire perceptive journey. It's not just that I'm engaged as a musician trying to encourage musicians to play their best and with compassion for one another, I'm listening as it happens with the mind of an audience member too, and even in a first reading with the pitfalls associated, I found myself marveling at what Tchaikovsky was able to create in sound. The effect is moving.
I highly recommend going to hear Tchaikovsky performed live this year. While I think recordings can give you a sense of what it is to hear his voice, it's much like watching cooking on TV - while you can see that the food must taste amazingly good, there's nothing like being in a room where you can sense the aroma wafting around you and then finally have the pleasure of taking a bite, enjoying the taste, and then talking about it with your friends and family.