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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony Number 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)
Theme and Variations from the Suite number 3, Op. 55 (1876)
David Nolan, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
Recorded at Watford Town Hall on 10-11 November 1979, and Walthamstow Assembly Hall, 31 January 1978 [ADD]


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As he began to sketch his fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote the following descriptive programme for the first movement:-

"Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or - which is the same - before the inscrutable predestination of Providence … Murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against XXX. Shall I surrender myself to the embrace of faith?"

Although his own tone poems had been a popular success, Tchaikovsky still harbored doubts as to the ability of music to tell a story. Nevertheless, his fifth symphony was to tell a profound personal tale; one of aching self-doubt in the face of success, and one of crippling self-loathing in the face of XXX. This anonymous monogram turns up often in Tchaikovsky’s writings. At first, scholars believed it to be an actual person who was the composer’s bane. Later it was determined that this mysterious moniker was the pseudonym for his own homosexuality, a trait with which he would never come to terms, and the discovery of which has caused volumes of speculation as to the exact circumstances of his untimely death in 1893.

During his lifetime, Tchaikovsky’s Suites for Orchestra numbered amongst his most popular works. Although now eclipsed by his later three symphonies, the suites are tours de force in orchestrational technique. Sharing a love of the theme and variation genre with such admired composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, this charming set includes eleven variations and ends in a sparkling, energetic polonaise.

Norman Del Mar leads an energetic emotionally-charged performance of the symphony. The London Philharmonic strings play with a splendid lush tone, but are quite done in by some questionable woodwind intonation and a trumpet section that is so blaring and out of tune as to be almost painful. The achingly melancholy second movement gets off to a fine start with some beautiful solo playing from the principal horn. Equally lovely exchanges from the winds follow. Alas, this splendid set-up is severely damaged by the trumpets that cannot seem to find the center of the pitch, and blare away in a seeming attempt to peg the engineer’s meters. The wistful, mysterious waltz is played elegantly. The triumphant finale suffers from a rather indifferent amount of energy, and from the aforementioned trumpets.

The Theme and Variations from the third orchestral suite, recorded a year earlier, fare considerably better than the Symphony. It is played with considerable aplomb, but this little filler is not substantial enough to merit dropping the cash for the recording.

With so many truly fine performances of this music in its catalogue, one wonders exactly why EMI found the need to reissue such a mediocre performance. At mid-price, this disc might serve as a repertoire filler, but one would be hard-pressed to find any desert island qualities here. The twenty-plus year old analogue recordings hold up fairly well, and the program notes are good, with just the right mix of anecdote and analysis. While this disc has a redeeming quality or two, there are better ways to spend your CD budget.

Kevin Sutton

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