Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Francesca da Rimini. Paavo Jarvi, Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. Alpha 659.

By Bill Heck

I confess that, when it comes to performances led by Paavo Jarvi, I may be a homer. We lived for eleven years in southwestern Ohio and had season tickets for the Cincinnati Orchestra where Jarvi was the music director. I cannot comment on what the band was like before Jarvi arrived, but it was awfully good during his tenure, and his (their?) interpretations suited us well. Thus it was that Paavo Jarvi’s countenance looking out from the cover of this Alpha release grabbed my attention, and so here we are.

While Jarvi was in Cincinnati, the orchestra recorded for Telarc. Many of the recordings in that series were conducted by the late Erich Kunzel, perhaps the most famous (notorious?) of those being the 1812 Overture – you know, the one with the booming canons that gave your subwoofer a true workout. However, the orchestra did record more “serious” repertoire under Jarvi, including Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. I found that performance good but not great, but it was a long time ago – how has his approach to Tchaikovsky’s music changed since then?

A few years ago, Jarvi left Cincinnati, subsequently assuming leadership of the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. (No need to feel sorry for Cincinnati: the new music director, Louis Langree, is a very able replacement, and the newly renovated Music Hall sounds fabulous.) Among other projects, the Jarvi/Tonhalle partnership in Zurich has begun a cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies on the Alpha label, the Fifth being the first release.

As to the conception here, let me quote from Jarvi’s own description: “When I think of the Fifth Symphony, I think of vulnerability and hope. It looks directly into our soul….Unlike the Sixth, the Fifth still holds out hope for life.” This statement seems an apt description of what one hears on this very fine recording.

Usually, our reviews start with descriptions of the music, often stepping through the movements of a work pointing out highlights or idiosyncrasies of interpretation, with recorded sound mentioned last, almost as a footnote. In this case however, it's worth talking about the sound right up front because it contributes so greatly to the overall result. The major point is that I don’t recall ever hearing a recording that provides so much insight into the intricate inner voices of the orchestra. It is a commonplace that Tchaikovsky was a master of orchestral color, and in live performances, the attentive listener usually can pick out the various parts easily. In recordings, however, too often it is difficult to hear the inner details, particularly in loud, complex passages. Here, with what I suspect is a combination of some slight rearrangement of the players as well as careful miking of the orchestra, the brass and especially the woodwinds are more audible than usual. (Rearranging orchestral forces on the stage is not so unusual as some may think. There's nothing sacred about typical arrangements.) In whatever way the effect was produced, the result is revelatory.

I should add that the general quality of the recording is excellent, with very natural and uncompressed sound. Then too, the liner notes tell us that the recording was done live, but nary a distracting cough can be heard nor is post-performance applause audible. Audiences in Zurich must be exceedingly well-behaved.

Now, on to the performance. For many listeners, the touchstone recordings of the last two Tchaikovsky symphonies are the Mravinsky/Leningrad versions. For their time in 1960, the sound is quite good, but the interpretations are what make these recordings so special. In the case of the Fifth, the performance crackles with energy and passion, roaring through the piece at a blistering 42:08 and leaving the listener drained, or maybe overwhelmed. Jarvi’s approach is not quite so overtly passionate and it certainly is slower at 47:53, but that’s hardly surprising: everyone takes it slower than Mravinsky. (For a few comparisons, Gergiev is a leisurely 51:29, Honeck moves quickly at 46:06, and Neeme Jarvi is like son, like father at 47:24.)

Tchaikovsky himself spoke of a “surrender to Fate” in connection with this work. In keeping with the Fate motif, Jarvi’s opening is quite slow and played very, very softly at first: we are stepping gingerly out and peeking around the corner to see what Fate is up to. But things soon accelerate and, while Jarvi and the Tonhalle do not quite throw off sparks like the Leningrad group, they still bring plenty of feeling to the performance. Despite the differences in timing, I heard Jarvi’s phrasing and approach as fairly similar to Mravinsky’s – until the finale, where Mravinsky takes off at an incredible, almost shocking pace. Jarvi gives the music plenty of energy, but not like that – which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Independently of tempo, the fourth movement also is where interpretive differences among many performances are most obvious. The finale concludes a work that has vacillated between anxiety and hesitation on one hand and hope and determination on the other; the final movement supposedly represents “ultimate victory through strife.” The obvious reading thus comes down on the side of affirmation. But there is another reading, one that implies that the hope is superficial; that whistles past the graveyard; that swaggers along with false confidence, fearing that darkness and even despair lurk just underneath the surface. (Of course, there is no one correct view: surely a hallmark of great art is that it is open to multiple interpretations.) As the earlier quotation from Jarvi implies, this performance is in the former camp, emphasizing the positive and building a majestic soundscape for that view.

At this point in the review, it is common to call out a few illustrative details of the performance, either to praise some particularly felicitous phrasings or to pick some especially annoying nits. Frustratingly – for me, not so much for you – I found it difficult to carry out this duty. At the risk of sounding as though I am copping out completely, I found passage after passage nicely judged and well-played, with the Zurich forces producing music that seemed to flow naturally without calling attention to the conducting or playing. Indeed, it was only after several hearings that I became truly conscious of just how well-rehearsed and very much together the orchestra sounds: phrases start and stop precisely, accents are on the nose, with the musicians playing as one. Great playing like that does not call attention to itself, but instead keeps the attention on the music.

At this point, the astute reader will have noticed that I have yet to mention the second work on the disk, Francesca da Rimini. True, but let’s face it: the Fifth is the main attraction here. In brief, the Francesca is a solid, well-played performance – but I don’t find it as engaging or as powerful as its CD mate. Maybe it’s just me.

Heaven only knows how many commercial recordings of the Tchaikovsky Fifth have been released over the years. I recently found what purported to be a list of these recordings but gave up counting at 100 – and guessed that I was a quarter of the way through! Let’s just say that I own a few CDs of the Fifth, and I’ve heard more here and there – and with those in mind, I can recommend the Jarvi/Tonhalle recording as an excellent performance in excellent sound, well worth hearing even if you, too, have more recordings of the work than you really need.


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

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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