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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888) [46:57]
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture (1869/70) [18:44]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
Recorded at the Neues Gewandhaus, Leipzig, March 1987, March 1990. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 61432-2 [64:41]

If one were to take Tchaikovsky at his own word, his entire repertoire would have been dismissed a century ago as the mediocre drivel of a man who had nothing to say. That was his normal take on his own works. In his letters and diaries, he often would state that his finished works were worthless, and he might not bother to waste anyone’s time by writing again. In 1888, after what seemed to him an endless dry spell, he wrote to his patron, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, "My symphony is finished ... There is something repellent about it ... This symphony will never please the public." Interestingly enough, that so-called "repellent" work was to become one of his most performed pieces, the epic and energetic Symphony No. 5.

The entire work is based around a single theme, which is intended to represent an anthropomorphized Fate. Initially played on the lowest register of the clarinet, the theme introduces the first movement, is evocative of a distant funeral procession and, as the symphony progresses, returns in various guises. It is sometimes wistful, at other times imposing; sometimes passing like a ghost through the violins at other times rumbling through the bassoons and clarinets. The predominant emotion inclines toward optimism until Tchaikovsky transforms his Fate theme into a triumphal march.

The Leipzig performance is very nicely done, although recorded perhaps too quietly at the beginning of the first movement. While the piece is easily heard on a home stereo system but one would not, for instance, be able to do much with it in a moving vehicle or on an airplane until several minutes in. On the other hand, this is exactly the effect one would want in a live performance or in a recital hall. Therefore, if the listener is accustomed to listening intently to a performance this would be considered a positive.

The energy throughout is very nicely conveyed. The final movement is one of the composer’s more exuberant and triumphant inspirations, representing, in Tchaikovsky’s mind, a "complete submission to Fate." The timpani and winds come forth in impressive fashion and to great effect. For four full movements, the performance is very nice and quite well balanced.

Following the Fifth Symphony is one of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved works, Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture, which is often considered to be his first true masterpiece. This tone-poem was commissioned as an introduction for the famous Shakespearean drama and first performed in 1870. As in Symphony 5, the introduction of the work is a theme symbolizing Fate. The main subject material depicts the feuding Montagues and Capulets with the more familiar contrasting theme representing Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other. As the piece unfolds, the chorale and feud motifs play off each other until the love theme reappears and briefly dominates in its heightened form. It doesn’t manage to hold dominance however, and after its recapitulation fragments, appearing in musical shards throughout the funeral march in the coda. Finally it breaks down completely under the strain of the bellicose blows from the whole orchestra. It is among the most familiar in Western civilization, and is here presented cleanly and competently. The performance is very nice and was recorded without any noticeable flaws. Indeed, if one is looking for a recording of these works this would certainly be as good a recording as many and better than most.

The only thing to detract from this album would be the sheer number of times that these pieces have been recorded. There is much to recommend this CD, but not much to differentiate it from many other performances. Both Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet Overture have been recorded dozens of times and probably exist already in most collectors CD racks. However, if you do not have a recording of them yet, this would be a fine place to get solid renditions of this impassioned and wonderful music.

Patrick Gary



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