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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64 [47:36]
The Tempest: Symphonic Fantasy to Shakespeare’s Drama, Op. 18 [23:06]
U.S.S.R. Symphony Orchestra/Evgeni Svetlanov
Recorded 1967 (Symphony 5) and 1970 (Tempest). Locations not given. ADD
CDKM 1010 DDD [70:42]

In what is undoubtedly the umpteenth reissue of this thirty-plus year old material, one cannot help but draw the conclusion that for Russian orchestras intonation and control over wind and brass instruments is simply anathema to the culture. I say this despite the dramatic intensity with which they usually play, and the rich sonorous sound they produce.

There is no doubt that the late Evgeni Svetlanov, who lead the U.S.S.R. Symphony orchestra for thirty-five years, was an able musician, possessed of a fire and spirit that make even flawed performances like this one palatable, at least to a point. Things get started well enough with a rich, full-throated clarinet solo in the symphony. Good pacing, fine ebb and flow of line follow with some lush and inspired playing by the string section. Then come the winds and brass. Consistently, the players over-blow, causing the brass to sound overwhelming and the winds to be excruciatingly out of tune.

The second movement, with its exquisite horn solo fares well enough in softer passages, but as soon as any volume ratchets up, your ears are assaulted with the flat winds. I shall not waste bandwidth by detailing every infraction, but will sum it up by saying that this is a passionate and soulful performance, and if you can stand the intonation mess, you have an exciting rendition on your hands.

The Tempest, Tchaikovski’s early tone poem based on the play by Shakespeare receives a better performance than the symphony, and this is music that should have a more prominent place on the stage. It is brimming with excitement and drama. Not a flawless performance, but a worthy one.

The program notes by Evgeni Kostitsyn are pretentious: "The symphony requires maturity in a composer…Usually a symphony is a summary of a composer’s experience over a substantial period of time…If symphonies are sometimes composed by seven-year-old children, we can call them symphonies only conditionally." Tell that to Mozart. They are inaccurate: "The first who established the idea of ‘leitmotif’ was Beethoven (sic)." Not really. Leitmotifs are a conscious assignation of a theme to a specific character, brought of course into full fruition by Wagner. Perhaps Beethoven’s seminal themes (the fifth symphony comes to mind) were the harbinger of the leitmotif, but he hardly set out to identify specific characters with a theme. His description of the symphony is at best a sophomoric attempt to be profound: "There are no symphonies without sonata allegro or its equivalent." Profundity fails the writer.

In all, this seems like a rather homegrown production of some public domain master tapes. Sound quality is adequate but the production values of this disc are minimal at best. There are other versions (BMG Melodiya), which are surely more satisfying. I cannot find much to recommend about this production.

Kevin Sutton


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