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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 (1888)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. live, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 21-22 July 2008.
RLPO LIVE no catalogue number [43:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Comparative versions
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan, DG 4530882 (1976) [49:40 - review]
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel, DG 4778022 (2008) [48:04 - review]
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux, Vanguard ATMCD1894 (1960) [44:28 - review]

Does the world need another recording of this staple of the repertoire? It is a question asked every time a new version of one of the great and popular works arrives. In my opinion, the answer is yes, if for no other reason than it would be unfair on the up-and-coming conductors of today if they weren’t able to add their rendition to the considerable stockpile that already exists. In the case of the Tchaikovsky 5, it is a substantial pile: ArkivMusic lists 136 recordings currently available (the one being considered not being among them for reasons explained below).

I suspect that the names Petrenko and Dudamel would be high on most people’s list of the brightest and best young conductors of today. The latter recorded this work with his remarkable Venezuelan Youth Orchestra last year and it has been quite well received: Rob Barnett described it in these pages as “very fine” (see review).

Now, we have the 33-year old Russian and his Liverpool forces in a recording that has not been released on CD as yet, but is available for download through emusic. My information is that the release date on CD has been put back while some final edits are made. You might wish to check the RLPO website to see when it becomes available for general purchase. Presumably, there will be some fillers as well.

Petrenko has made three CDs for Naxos - Liszt’s piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony - each of which has attracted accolades from our reviewers (see Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich). I have heard the latter, as part of my survey of that work, and likewise, found it to be one of the better versions available.

So to Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky 5, and I will give you my summary upfront. This is simply superb - if there are better recordings of the work, I haven’t heard them.

Like his Shostakovich 11, this is a quick reading - the only one I could find faster was a World War II-era Mengelberg/Concertgebouw - but in no way is it rushed. The key word here is impetus: Petrenko keeps the music moving in a way that Dudamel, with his exaggeration of tempo changes, doesn’t and gives it a vitality that Karajan, with his slow tempos, can’t.

There is a wonderfully deliberate tread in the opening movement as the music begins to swell from its dark beginnings. The climaxes, alternating between brass and strings, are intense and dramatic, and the pizzicato ripples across the strings quite delicious.

The second movement Andante cantabile is extraordinarily beautiful, really benefiting from the slightly faster tempo. Most conductors take Tchaikovsky’s offer of some freedom (con alcuna licenza) in the tempo to mean “play it slower”, but Petrenko makes sure that it is truly andante. Put simply, this beats every other rendition of the movement I have heard by quite a long way. The phrasing and attention to detail, especially the horn solos - truly dolce con molto espressione - and the keening themes in the winds, made me feel I was hearing the work afresh. I daresay there were some teary eyes in the hall those two nights at the end of this movement, such is the poetry and passion.

I find the third movement Valse the weakest part of the work, and certainly the least memorable waltz Tchaikovsky ever wrote, but even here, Petrenko makes a good case for it by not dragging it out.

The finale begins with a march that is majestic, exactly as the tempo marking says it should, before accelerating smoothly into the allegro vivace. By contrast, Dudamel slows right down to adagio before suddenly bursting disconcertingly into prestissimo. Karajan’s very deliberate tempo in the allegro had always seemed effective, but going back to it after the Petrenko, it seemed too slow.

I would have liked Petrenko to have held the false ending pause longer. Karajan and Monteux create a wonderful tension at this point by holding the pause for almost two seconds: I’m sure I can hear the start of applause in the Monteux. This is but a very minor quibble, and probably the only one.

The Dudamel, also recorded live, makes for a fascinating comparison: two very different takes on the same work. I always thought it wasn’t possible to be too “over the top” with Tchaikovsky, but I now know that is wrong. Undoubtedly, this would have been thrilling to hear live, but the extreme tempos - slow and fast - that Dudamel adopts, often butted up against each other, make for uncomfortable listening in the lounge.

The Karajan/Berlin 1976 recording has been my standard recording until now. It is even slower than the Dudamel, but in an inexorable, monolithic - and far more successful - way. As much as I still enjoy it, especially the extraordinary sound of the orchestra, it has to yield to this new recording.  

Rob Barnett, in his Dudamel review, cites the Monteux as his standard: it is almost identical in timing to the Petrenko in movements I-III, but the almost 50-year recording, live in Vienna, struggles to do the performance justice.

The sound - in 200+ kbps mp3 format (emusic regularly varies the compression between movements for no obvious reason) - is very acceptable, and the audience noise is minimal until the end when the performance gets its totally deserved rapturous ovation.

This proves that there is always a place for another great performance of the central repertoire. It also confirms that we have a new great conductor who has clearly ascended from the ranks of the young and upcoming. Liverpool can count itself very, very lucky. This is one of my Recordings of the Year, absolutely no doubt about it.

David J Barker 

At time of writing, the other RLPO Live recordings on emusic, and presumably being readied for CD release were:

Malcolm Arnold: The Sound Barrier (conducted by the composer)
Frederick Austin: The Sea Venturers overture (Douglas Bostock)
Respighi: Church Windows
Stanford: Shamus O’Brien overture (Douglas Bostock)
Janáček: Taras Bulba (Petr Altrichter)
R Strauss: Don Quixote, Don Juan (Gerard Schwarz)
Poulenc: Les Biches (Junichi Hirokami)
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto (Nicholas Cox, Roy Goodman)
Françaix: L’Horloge de Flore 


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