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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [45’09]. Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1870, rev. 1880) [20’39].
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniele Gatti.
Rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, on July 31st-August 1st, 2003 (Op. 64) and Watford Colosseum on May 6th-7th, 1998 (Romeo). DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI USA HMU907381 [65’56]

 

This is in many ways a remarkable disc. Gatti has effectively brought a breath of fresh air to two war-horses of the repertoire, in the process inspiring the RPO to matching the highest of orchestral standards. Overall production quality is high, too, with George Gelles’ notes being extensive, detailed, accurate and readable – quite a combination!.

The Fifth Symphony receives a reading of the utmost care and attention to detail. The Andante of the first movement exemplifies its qualities in microcosm. Nicely shaded, it projects an atmosphere of melancholy unrest (and just listen to the clarinettist’s control!). Time has clearly been taken to consider phrasing and balance – it provides the perfect foil for the thrust of the movement proper (Allegro con anima). Gatti shows an Italianate refusal to linger (this is not to imply any literalism, though) – yet he makes the music’s debt to the world of the ballet clear, too. He can show a most appealing sense of humour, too – the suave third movement (‘Valse’) has turns of phrase that strongly suggest a confidential lifting of the eyebrows.

The bed of sound created at the start of the slow movement (Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza) almost rivals the warmth of the horn solo (Martin Owen). The oboe, when it enters, is thin of timbre but this is not inappropriate and it still exudes an interior expression. Climaxes swell naturally, Gatti never allowing the music to rest and his enthusiasm is such that in the latter part of the movement it almost sounds as if the music is about to skid out of control – but, of course, it does not. The ending disappears into nothing, magically (again, the clarinettist’s control is supreme).

It is only the finale that raises any doubts at all. Here the RPO’s strings lack a certain amount of depth and so the music does not carry its full import. If Gatti generates a fair head of steam early on, he inexplicably allows the tension to sag around the seven-minute mark. Interesting how he sees the coda as more poetic (and balletic) than incendiary.

This is a memorable account – no matter how many versions you have on your shelves, there should be space for this one. True, the sheer volatility of Gergiev (with the Vienna Philharmonic on Philips 462 905-2) has its own complementary, mesmeric, appeal. One should ideally not be without either.

The Romeo and Juliet dates from 1998 and comes courtesy of BMG. It is not as immediately impressive as the Fifth (AR was impressed by a Proms performance by these forces in September 2002, though: http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2002/Aug02/Prom_72.htm). The same care comes across (the Friar Lawrence introduction is very carefully moulded, but sequences later can be presented literally, losing their cumulative point. Moments appeal – the delicate web of string sound around the nine-minute mark, for example. But the whole fails to hang together convincingly because Gatti steam-rollers his way through. The timpani are not focused enough for the ominous triplet rhythm at the close.

Nevertheless, the performance of the Fifth alone justifies the cost of this disc.

Colin Clarke

 



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