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.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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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For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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