Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Also, Swan Lake suite. Christian Lindberg, Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS-2018.

My favorite Tchaikovsky symphony. Not necessarily my favorite recording of it, but my absolute favorite Tchaikovsky. Oh, there are parts of the composer’s first three symphonies that are evocative and descriptive, the final movements of the Fourth are rousing, and the opening of the Sixth is achingly beautiful. Yet the Fifth Symphony charms me all the way through, despite the initially negative reaction of critics (and Tchaikovsky himself counting it a failure).

Favorite recordings of the Fifth? Of course. I love Maris Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos) for its combination of delicacy, despondency, and power; Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) for its sumptuous sound; and various runners-up like Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Leopold Stokowski and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Decca), and Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). Then there are others that I simply admire, and I must now add Christian Lindberg’s new BIS recording with the Arctic Philharmonic among these “others.” Although I admire Lindberg’s recording, I don’t love it.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) conducted the première of his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 in 1888, the same year he wrote it. A related theme reappears in assorted guise in all four of the work’s movements, a theme the composer said was "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." Fortunately, the music is not as dark as the composer makes it out to be, and before too long the mood shifts. As the piece goes on, the thematic character becomes more positive, as though Tchaikovsky were expressing an increased optimism toward fate, the music appearing to become more optimistic as it goes along. It’s hard to tell, however, whether Tchaikovsky intended to end the symphony on an entirely affirmative note, and critics as well as listeners have been arguing the point for years.

Anyway, Lindberg begins by taking Tchaikovsky at his word, opening with a zippy reading of the Andante--Scherzo: Allegro con anima. Well, at least the composer indicated taking the Scherzo part with a spirited, animated fashion. But Lindberg goes it one better by taking the Andante at a faster clip than most conductors, too. I found it a little disconcerting but only by comparison. On its own, it sounds right and proper, if a tad less well characterized than I’ve heard it. So Lindberg gives us a zesty first movement, if a touch too straightforward for my taste, lacking slightly in dramatic contrast but making up for it in sheer exuberance.

The composer marks the second movement Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, meaning a slow, even tempo (a walking pace) taken in a lyrical, songlike manner, with some freedom. Like the first and third movements, the second opens very slowly and quietly, which Lindberg handles well. It's somber without being entirely gloomy and then opens up agreeably to a more-positive tone. While it perhaps misses some of the overtly Romantic, poignant emotions of my aforementioned favorites, it comes close, and Lindberg offers a sweet and tender interpretation.

The third movement is a Valse: Allegro moderato, a waltz that Tchaikovsky meant be taken at a moderate tempo. Oddly, it is in the concluding two movements that Lindberg tends to slow down more than many other conductors, at least at the start. In doing so, he loses some of the dynamism he built up earlier and has to race to catch up. Nevertheless, by the end of the waltz, he's got things moving at a stirring pace heading into the Finale.

The Finale begins with a tempo of Andante maestoso (a stately, moderately slow section), moves into Allegro Vivace (a brisk, vivacious section), and ends in Moderato Assai e molto maestoso (very moderate time and very stately). By now, Tchaikovsky has established his theme through its repetition in all the movements, and Lindberg emphasizes it powerfully in the opening moments of the final movement. Then the conductor opens up all guns, and even though he doesn't go full bore as some other conductors do, he provides enough enthusiasm and the Arctic Philharmonic respond with enough gusto and bravura to get one’s blood racing. Along with the excellent BIS audio engineering, this makes for spirited account of the symphony.

Coupled with the Fifth Symphony we find a twenty-five-minute selection of items from Swan Lake, a suite originally compiled in 1900. Here, I found Lindberg much to my taste, his seeming to have a natural affinity for the rhythmic pulse of ballet. The performance is intense and colorful.

Producer Ingo Petry and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth recorded the music for BIS Records at Harstand Kulturhus, Norway in February 2013. It's one of the best-sounding Tchaikovsky Fifths you'll find, reproduced in both stereo and multichannel on a hybrid SACD. In the stereo format to which I listened, the all-important midrange is clear and well defined yet radiates a soft, warm, ambient glow, well emulating the concert hall without the distractions of a live audience. When dynamics come into play, they do so with a fury, the range wide and impactful, the bass taut. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the miking is a bit too close, especially on some individual instruments, and then at other times everything seems right and natural.

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa