One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             




AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1894)
Symphony No. 5 in e, Op. 64 (1888) [48.51]
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Recorded Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg, Russia, 11 April 1992.
Capriccio Italien in A, Op. 45 (1880) [14.34]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Recorded EMI Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, UK, 11 March 1990.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
RCA BMG 82876 65831-2 [63.44]

Comparison recordings:
Symphony No. 5, Leopold Stokowski, [ADD] DECCA 455 157-2
Symphony No. 5, Odd Gruner-Hegge, Oslo PO, RCA LP
Symphony No. 5, Pierre Monteux, LSO, [ADD] Silverline DVD-Audio Classics 288 228-9
Symphony No. 5, Pierre Monteux, LSO, [ADD] Vanguard Classics 8031
Symphony No. 5, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin PO, [ADD] EMI CDM 64871
Capriccio Italien, Hermann Scherchen, LSO, [ADD] TAHRA TAH 415
Capriccio Italian, Paul van Kempen, RPO [ADD] Philips "Legendary Classics" 420 858-2

Elsewhere I have, or eventually will, outline Johannes Brahmsí lengthy, heroic campaign to put a symphony into orbit in the Beethoven symphonic universe. Tchaikovskyís effort was no less lengthy, nor less heroic nor less successful, but Iíll bet youíve never heard the whole story before.

First, a quiz. How many symphonies did Tchaikovsky write, I ask?

Well, six, you say ó no, wait a minute, thatís trick question isnít it, letís say seven because he did leave one unfinished at his death.

Unfortunately my smile tells you thatís not the right answer and you settle down and get ready for a lecture.

Tchaikovskyís First Symphony of 1866, Op. 13, was a valid student essay in symphonic form, although already showing that this composer was going to do some startling things. The Second Symphony of 1872, Op. 17, was already in an orbit several thousand miles higher than Op. 13, but still rather close to the earth. For his third symphony in 1876, Opus 20, "Swan Lake," Tchaikovsky tried something revolutionary, a 29 movement dance-symphony with a ballet scenario. Nobody understood, the result was a muddle, a bad ballet, a corrupted dance score padded with music from other sources, his grand design shattered. Tchaikovsky was disappointed and depressed. He next produced the weakest of all his symphonies, "No. 3," Op. 29.

Brahms had written two "Serenades" and so between 1878 and 1884 Tchaikovsky wrote four "Suites," symphonies in all but name. Does anybody know for sure, was there a grand polonaise planned for the ballroom scene in the failed opera of Undine/Romeo and Juliet? If so, here, expanded, as the variation finale to Suite No. 3, is that music, one of the most successful essays in Tchaikovskyís dance-symphonic form. As the charming and trivial Suite No. 4 shows, the symphonic form had become unimportant to Tchaikovsky.

Deems Taylor in Disneyís "Fantasia" said that Tchaikovsky hated his Nutcracker Suite. It wasnít that Tchaikovsky hated the music, he hated the public who loved it. "I gave them a masterpiece in Swan Lake," he is reported to have said, "but all they want from me is fluff."

Perhaps it was Brahmsí success with his searing, violent, Third Symphony in 1883 that woke Tchaikovsky up, but, whatever, the fount sprang afresh. With the four movement "symphonic poem" Manfred, Op. 58, 1885, (none dare call it a symphony, but of course it is one*) Tchaikovsky re-entered the race, and with the Fourth Symphony, Op. 36, 1888, Tchaikovsky finally succeeded in orbiting a symphony high among the Brahms symphonies and dangerously close to the Beethoven canon. He knew better than to try another moon-shot, like Op. 20, but Op. 36 was a brash work, the definition of brashness up to that point. It avoided any direct reference of dance music, and made the point that Tchaikovsky was not finished in the symphonic space race, no indeed. For his tenth essay in symphonic form, the "Fifth Symphony," Op. 64 in 1888, Tchaikovsky moved more in the direction of Opus 20. It must be as obvious to everyone as it is to me that the second movement began life as yet another sketch for a dramatic scene from his abandoned opera Undine/Romeo and Juliet; and the third movement is one of his most danceable waltzes. The final triumphant march reflects Tchaikovskyís confident assertion that he is back on track and that people better notice.

This brings us up to the point of our discussion, so we must quickly dispose of the next two Tchaikovsky symphonies, numbers eleven, "Pathétique," and twelve, the last, unfinished. And if anyone thinks that Tchaikovskyís attempt to establish the dance-symphony as a major symphonic form was a complete failure, what about the twentieth centuryís greatest and most notorious dance-symphony, Stravinskyís Sacre du Printemps? Stravinsky always said he was just following Tchaikovsky*.

When I first heard this recording it seemed to me a failure, either too fast or too slow at every moment, throwing away the climaxes and losing the sentiment in prolix ruminations and, after all, merely in CD sound when we already had several high resolution versions to choose from. So, I remained loyal to the list of my favorite performances as listed above, noting that the Karajan recording which had appeared as an SQ quadraphonic disk may be a four channel master and may some day appear as a surround sound DVD-Audio.

But eventually I listened again. After all, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestraís** recordings of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies with Sanderling on DG were for a generation the standard against which all other recordings of these works were measured. And Temirkanov produced a brilliant, stirring, atmospheric performance of the sound-track from Alexander Nevsky to be joined with the restored release of the film.

Well, Iím glad I did, because on repeated hearing this turns out to be one of the finest and most intense versions of this work Iíve ever heard. Temirkanov decides to match Stokowski at his own game and shapes every tiny phrase of this work, wringing every last drOp. of drama from the score. Others have tried this, but Temirkanov succeeds brilliantly. The sound on this CD is very fine, and we are informed that the original is a 24bit master, so we may see it some day on an SACD release.

But let my experience be your caution: be sure youíre in the right mood when you listen.

Hermann Scherchen made the first super hi-fi recording of Capriccio Italien in 1953 and that was a revelation. Also, this is one of those few works that benefits from Leonard Bernsteinís glad-handing corniness when conducting Romantic music. Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra give us a well proportioned but brilliant digitally recorded performance on DG. Paul van Kempenís legendary [analogue] performance with this same orchestra, the RPO, remains the standard, but unfortunately I have never been able to obtain a copy of my own, so I canít make a direct comparison. But if Temirkanov isnít better than van Kempen, at least his performance is astoundingly good, the very best you can get your hands on. Enjoy.

*As German composers were superstitious about numbering their Ninth symphonies, why did Slavic composers avoid numbering their Fourths? Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Szymanowski, and Tchaikovsky gave their fourth symphonies names but not numbers. For this discussion, we consider that Tchaikovskyís Fourth should properly be the one following his Third, that is, Manfred, Op. 58.

** While listening to this symphony pretend youíre Stravinsky gathering ideas to put into Rite of Spring. Youíll be amazed at what you find. Those of you who might think Iím wandering too far from reality might also consider Berliozís Symphony No. 3, "Romeo and Juliet," 1839, in ten movements; Alan Hovhanessí Symphony No. 9, "St. Vartan," in 24 movements, 1950; and Sergei Rachmaninovís (another Tchaikovsky disciple) Symphony No. 4, "Symphonic Dances" of 1945. All of these works, like Swan Lake, contrasted vigorous dance episodes with reflective dramatic scenes which lend themselves to being pantomimed.

*** as the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra

Paul Shoemaker


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.