Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 & 6 (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  EMI 0946 3 81798 2.

There was a time in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s that Herbert von Karajan was among the most recognized conductors in the world through his work with DG and EMI, and his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, was among the greatest that ever played.  Times change.  The orchestra continues to perform well, but Karajan's name may be fading.

Not that EMI or DG want the name to disappear.  They have a ton of old material they have been reissuing since the man's death in 1989, as these late Tchaikovsky symphony recordings testify.  To my knowledge Karajan recorded the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth at least three times in stereo, twice for DG and once, here, for EMI.  He may have even recorded them four times in stereo, but I don't recall.  Doesn't matter, really.  The performances seem pretty much the same.  Still, these from EMI in 1972 are probably the best recorded.

Here's the thing, though:  You'll either find the interpretations intensely exciting or breathlessly hard-driven.  I tend to find them in the latter category.  Yes, they will get the adrenaline running, but, no, they might not reach out to your heart.  Karajan was often criticized for glamorizing the music he made.  Here, he doesn't so much glamorize it as push it too hard.  Of the three works in this two-disc set, I enjoyed the Fifth the most, but even here I found the conductor missing some of the work's inner drama in favor of outward show.  Still, one could do worse, and at the price these readings are worth hearing.  The only unfortunate aspect of the set is having to divide the Fifth Symphony between two discs.

The sound is at once appealing and not.  The sonics are quite dynamic, with a huge impact and pretty good orchestral depth.  But things tend to get a bit shrill in the biggest climaxes, and deepest bass is noticeably absent.  I compared a copy of Riccardo Muti's Tchaikovsky on EMI from the same era, a few years later with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and found the sound quite a bit smoother.  I wish EMI would rerelease that set.


1 comment:

  1. Karajan did record them four times in stereo, as there was a digital set with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded in the 1980s.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa