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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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