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"
Elsewhere I have, or
eventually will, outline Johannes Brahms’
lengthy, heroic campaign to put a symphony
into orbit in the Beethoven symphonic
universe. Tchaikovsky’s effort was no
less lengthy, nor less heroic nor less
successful, but I’ll bet you’ve never
heard the whole story before.
First, a quiz. How
many symphonies did Tchaikovsky write,
Well, six, you say
— no, wait a minute, that’s trick question
isn’t it, let’s say seven because he
did leave one unfinished at his death.
Unfortunately my smile
tells you that’s not the right answer
and you settle down and get ready for
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.
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 Tchaikovsky’s dance-symphonic
form. As the charming and trivial Suite
No. 4 shows, the symphonic form
had become unimportant to Tchaikovsky.
Deems Taylor in Disney’s
"Fantasia" said that Tchaikovsky
hated his Nutcracker Suite. It
wasn’t 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 Brahms’
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
Tchaikovsky’s confident assertion that
he is back on track and that people
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 Tchaikovsky’s
attempt to establish the dance-symphony
as a major symphonic form was a complete
failure, what about the twentieth century’s
greatest and most notorious dance-symphony,
Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?
Stravinsky always said he was just following
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 Orchestra’s** 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, I’m glad I did,
because on repeated hearing this turns
out to be one of the finest and most
intense versions of this work I’ve 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
But let my experience
be your caution: be sure you’re 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 Bernstein’s
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 Kempen’s 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 can’t make a direct
comparison. But if Temirkanov isn’t
better than van Kempen, at least his
performance is astoundingly good, the
very best you can get your hands on.
*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 Tchaikovsky’s Fourth
should properly be the one following
his Third, that is, Manfred,
** While listening
to this symphony pretend you’re Stravinsky
gathering ideas to put into Rite
of Spring. You’ll be amazed at what
you find. Those of you who might think
I’m wandering too far from reality might
also consider Berlioz’s Symphony No.
3, "Romeo and Juliet," 1839,
in ten movements; Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony
No. 9, "St. Vartan," in 24
movements, 1950; and Sergei Rachmaninov’s
(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