Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, The Voyevoda. Yondani Butt, London Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6217.

Maestro Yondani Butt, if you remember, is the Macau-born conductor with the Gramophone Award and the PhD in chemistry. His more-important qualification as a musician, however, is his lyrical, sensitive bent, which served him so well in two previous recordings with the LSO I reviewed of Beethoven and Wagner. He is no less lyrical or sensitive on the present Tchaikovsky disc, if that is what you’re looking for in Tchaikovsky.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 in 1888, conducting the premiere the same year. In various guises a similar theme reappears in all four movements of the work, a theme the composer described as "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." But things are not all that dark, and before long the mood picks up. As the work progresses, we hear the character of the theme become more positive, as though Tchaikovsky were voicing an increased optimism with regard to fate, the symphony becoming more affirmative and optimistic as it goes along. Whether or not Tchaikovsky meant to conclude the work on a wholly positive note is a question critics and listeners have been arguing for years.

Now, here’s the thing: Compared to the recordings I had on hand by Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti, Bernard Haitink, and others, Maestro Butt is slower in every movement every time, sometimes considerably slower. Nowhere do we hear this better exemplified than in the introductory Andante segment of movement one, which Butt advances at a snail’s pace. A listener will, of course, find rewards in the later outbreaks of the Allegro con anima, so like Butt’s previous recordings, this is one of contrasts, sometimes extreme contrasts. He is big on lyricism and grace, but he doesn’t always play up the big parts to much effect, even in contrast. If Butt’s intention was to show the world how poetic Tchaikovsky could be and how sensitive to Tchaikovsky’s tone he could be, then he surely succeeds immeasurably. However, it’s at the expense of losing out on some of the work’s excitement. Be forewarned.

As we might expect, Maestro Butt is at his best in the slow Andante cantabile movement. Here, the changing tensions work to Butt’s advantage, the conductor handling the alternating moods deftly and creating a sense of restrained passion throughout with a sweetly flowing line.

Likewise, Butt’s treatment of the third-movement Valse has a lovely lilt to its step, a reprieve from the shifting tones of the previous movement. Then, the finale brings with it the requisite triumph and joy. Or does it? Butt seems to inject an air of hesitant unhappiness into the proceedings, making us question whether the composer wanted to end things on an optimisitc note or not. Still, I’d rather hear Tchaikovsky performed with a few more thrills and a bit more thunder than Butt provides, more of a red-blooded “Russian” account.

Accompanying the Fifth Symphony we find Tchaikovsky’s tone poem (or as he called it, “Symphonic Ballad”) The Voyevoda, Op. 78, which one should not confuse with the opera of the same name Tchaikovsky composed some years earlier, based on a different source. Tchaikovsky, ever despondent, would call the music “rubbish” and destroy the score after its premiere. Fortunately, a fellow musician saved it. It’s really quite colorful, and Butt brings out all the Romantic atmosphere and flair in it. I don’t know why Butt wasn’t this persuasive in the symphony. 

Producer Chris Craker and engineer Simon Rhodes recorded the music at Abbey Road Studios, London, in 2012. Nimbus has a long and distinguished history (going back over forty years) of producing natural, realistic-sounding recordings, and this one will not disappoint the listener in that regard. The sound is very smooth, if a trifle soft, and easy on the ear. The stage sounds wide, with reasonably open and airy sonics, even though a tad recessed. Hint: Turn up the gain. The recording displays pretty good dynamics and an adequate amount of definition without having to get bright or forward to do it. While the sound may not be the most transparent you’ll hear, it remains well balanced and, as I say, fairly lifelike. Let’s say it’s comfortable sound, pleasantly listenable.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa