Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Der Voyevoda. Frank Shipway, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks RPM 29220.

As usual with Tchaikovsky, he felt dissatisfied with his Fifth Symphony when he finished it. He considered it a failure; but, well, he wasn't too keen on The Nutcracker or the 1812, either. What did he know.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, in 1888, and he conducted its première the same year. He used a theme that reappears in various guises in all four movements of the work, describing it at first as "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." But it's not all that dark and things pick up. Before long, we hear the character of the main theme become more positive as it progresses through the symphony, as though Tchaikovsky were voicing his increased optimism with regard to fate, the symphony becoming ever more affirmative and upbeat as it goes along.

On the present recording, Maestro Frank Shipway conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Candidly, when I first received the disc I was only vaguely familiar with the name Shipway, and even then I was probably thinking of Thomas Schippers. Nevertheless, Shipway is a prominent British conductor of international repute, mainly through his work with the Italian National Symphony Orchestra of the RAI. He studied conducting with Sir John Barbirolli and to a lesser degree with Herbert von Karajan and Lorin Maazel. In addition, he has judged conducting competitions and given master classes in music. Apparently, too, his recording of the Mahler Fifth with the RPO has garnered much critical acclaim. Fair enough. He certainly acquits himself well on this Tchaikovsky recording.

Shipway starts Tchaikovsky's Fifth very slowly, in hushed terms, building in intensity from humble beginnings. It's an indiction of how the conductor will proceed throughout the symphony: very carefully, very methodically, his rhythms and tempos a tad regimented yet carrying a decent Romantic spark, too, and eventually lighting up the room with their strength and authority. A few minutes in and the movement is as animated as Tchaikovsky directs: "Allegro con anima." Then the recurring main theme opens up beautifully.

The symphony continues in this manner, with the conductor shaping the music thoughtfully, and the orchestra responding with passion and precision. The Andante cantabile, for instance, sounds exceptionally relaxed yet still provides ample emotion.

The third movement waltz moves dancingly along, if without quite the life and lilt we hear from Jansons (Chandos), Muti (EMI), or Haitink (Philips). Still, it has plenty of vitality and offers a charming interlude before the music's fiery conclusion.

Tchaikovsky pulled out all the stops in his finale, the main theme now sounding quite triumphant and Shipway making the most of it by executing some really forceful crescendos of tremendous power.  Initially, Tchaikovsky's audiences didn't know what to make of this movement, many of them finding it too reckless and explosive. Today, we accept it as simply exciting and exhilarating. Shipway helps us out.

As a coupling, the disc gives us Tchaikovsky's little tone poem Der Voyevoda, which he wrote in 1890 and based on a poem by Adam Mickiewicz. As usual, Tchaikovsky didn't like it, dismissing it as "rubbish." Nonetheless, it makes a suitable companion to the Fifth Symphony because like the Fifth it is not rubbish but quite varied, impassioned, and ultimately fascinating, if a little bombastic. Again, Shipway gives it careful attention.

Royal Philharmonic Masterworks, Sheridan Square Entertainment, and Allegro Corporation, the makers and distributors of the disc, provide no information on the recording, no date or location. The producers do tell us, however, that it is a part of their "Audiophile Collection," a "20 bit digital recording, edited and mastered via 32 bit digital sound processing, recorded in high definition and playable on all CD players." Since to my knowledge there is no absolute, objective meaning of the phrase "high definition" in regard to music recording, I suppose they mean it sounds pretty good. And it does.

The recording displays good orchestral depth, fairly good sonic delineation and detailing, and a very wide dynamic range and impact. The sound stage is big, big, big, with a good separation of instruments without appearing either excessively close or too multi-miked. The strings are smooth and the bass is solid, with a touch of soft, overall warmth and a bit of upper bass resonance thrown in. While it may not be what everyone thinks of "audiophile" sound, it's surely a pleasing aural experience.


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Meet the Staff

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa