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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [44.50]
1812 Overture, Op. 49 (1880) [14.53]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, October 1995
WARNER ELATUS 2564-61777-2 [59.43]


After Barenboim's wretched Pathétique, I feared the worst for this Fifth, but in fact he plays the piece relatively straight. Tempi are motile and propulsive, even in the slow introductions that stand as temptations to treacle. The conductor's quirky phrasing preferences, for once, actually enhance the music's coherence. The first movement's main theme, its detached under-articulations underplayed, comes across in arching four-bar phrases, while "long bows" at the end of string phrases help to connect musically disparate episodes. The finale gains in agitated impulse when you can hear as many of its swirling accompaniments as you do here.

On the debit side, Barenboim's decision to take the finale attacca from the end of the waltz is unnecessary, and jarring in effect. And the woozy coordination after 3:00 in the Andante suggests a prevailing uncertainty about the music's underlying tactus, an impression further reinforced by the way a tempo will occasionally lurch ahead, without apparent motivation. Otherwise, the Chicago Symphony's playing is firm and full, making plenty of impact. If the uncredited principal horn in the Andante (Dale Clevenger?) seems marginally out of tune with the accompanying strings, at least the reeds have resolved the pitch discrepancies that were such a trial in the Abbado version (Sony).

I doubt Barenboim conducts 1812 much in concert, but he's recorded it twice now. His DG version, also with the CSO, was impressive in a sight-reading sort of way (on the conductor's part, that is, not the players'!); the new performance, thrusting and strongly accented, improves on it. Once again, though, the music lurches forward spasmodically; and the triangle repeatedly anticipates the downbeats at 10:13 and thereafter - this is more annoying than you might think - and actually has to adjust mid-course.

One is tempted to recommend this disc, simply because it's so much better than most of Barenboim's output, and for its brilliant, bassy sonics. But it wouldn't be quite fair. Even if you specifically want the Chicago orchestra, both Solti (on his Decca analog) and Ozawa (BMG-RCA) have done better by them in the symphony. Guido Cantelli's 1952 NBC Symphony aircheck, a no-nonsense yet cantabile performance once available in Music & Arts set CD-602, remains my favorite Fifth, monaural sound notwithstanding.


Stephen Francis Vasta



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