Let's say your tastes usually run to the Austro-Germanic, but you already have all of Beethoven's and Brahms' symphonies, most of Bruckner's and Mahler's symphonies, and many of Mozart's and Haydn's symphonies, so now you're thinking about trying out Tchaikovsky's symphonies. The question is: how many should you get? Should you get just the famous last three symphonies? Should you get all six numbered symphonies? Should you get all six symphonies plus the Manfred Symphony. Or should you get all symphonies six plus Manfred plus the orchestral suites? The answer, of course, depends on how much of Tchaikovsky's richly melodic, fabulously colorful, and extravagantly emotional orchestral music you're up for.
If you're up for all of it, this eight-disc set is almost but not quite the set to get. Not only does it have the masterful Claudio Abbado conducting the magnificent Chicago Symphony in the six numbered symphonies plus six other mostly well-known orchestral works, it has the exuberant Michael Tilson Thomas conducting either the virtuosic London Symphony Orchestra or the voluptuous Philharmonia in Manfred, plus three of the four suites. But while it's true that just about all Tchaikovsky's orchestral music is here in performances as good or better than all but the best Russian performances -- Abbado was a true believer in this repertoire and recorded some of the works several times in his career -- it's also true that Tchaikovsky's First Orchestral Suite is conspicuous in its absence. That absence is easily explained -- the First Suite is surely the weakest of the four and thus it's entirely understandable that either Sony or Tilson Thomas or both declined to spend studio time on it -- but even a terrific set of the nearly complete orchestral music of Tchaikovsky is still only a nearly complete set -- and if you're looking for a complete set, this set remains almost but not quite the set to get. It should also be noted that this set does include pretty but thoroughly negligible performances of the Sérenade Mélancolique and Mélodie for violin and orchestra played by Pinchas Zukerman with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. Sony gives Abbado and the CSO big, loud, and close sound and Tilson Thomas with either London orchestra clear, warm, and round sound.