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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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