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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
CD 1
Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op. 64 (1888) [49:11]
The Tempest – Symphonic Fantasia in f minor after Shakespeare, Op. 18 (1873) [23:48]
CD 2
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare (rev. version, 1880) [20:00]
Symphony No. 6 in b minor ‘Pathétique’, Op. 74 (1892) [46:53]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Dorset, UK, October 1989 (CD 1) and February 1990 (CD 2). DDD.
VIRGIN de virgin 6 93238 2 [2 CDs 72:59+67:01]

Experience Classicsonline



 

This 2-CD reissue is excerpted from Andrew Litton’s still available complete 6-CD set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies on Virgin 5 61893 2. At around £13-£14 in the UK, it’s an unbelievable bargain, little dearer than the new 2 CD release; it certainly works out at much less per symphony.  Litton’s version of Symphony No.6 is also available on budget-price Classics for Pleasure, generously coupled with the Third Piano Concerto and the Andante Cantabile (2 28375 2).

These versions of the Tchaikovsky symphonies have been praised so highly that I was surprised to find myself slightly disappointed with Litton’s No.5.  It’s all very well played, with every note in place, but it just fails to catch fire at the crucial moments.  Perhaps I was expecting too much, or perhaps I was comparing it too much with recollections of other great performances – Leningrad PO/Yevgeny Mravinsky on DG, superb despite the Russian brass, from whom I really got to know this work (477 5911, 2 CDs with Nos. 4 and 6); Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell on CBS, recently reissued by Sony BMG, coupled with Capriccio Italien (82876 787442: Bargain of the Month – see review) and LPO/Siân Edwards at budget price (Classics For Pleasure 5 86168 2, with Serenade).

Significantly, though HMV chose the Litton version of No.6 for their in-house HMV Classics series (now no longer available), they preferred Edwards for No.5.  It isn’t just a matter of tempo, though that is part of the story. It’s also a question of where to direct the energy of the music.

Let’s begin with tempo, however, and note that, while Litton is consistently slower than the competition, there isn’t a great deal in it, except in the outer movements:
 

 

Litton

Mravinsky

Szell

Edwards

1st movement

16:10

14:38

14:39

14:38

2nd movement

13:44

11:54

13:05

13:19

3rd movement

5:55

5:29

6:01

6:00

4th movement

12:57

11:05

11:53

11:52

 

It’s remarkable how closely Szell and Edwards match each other throughout.  It’s their slightly faster tempo for the finale, especially the little spurt a few bars before the end, which brings the excitement that I found slightly wanting in Litton’s performance.   I played Szell’s finale straight after listening to Edwards; both bring the house down.  While Edwards’ DDD recording sounds much better than Szell’s ADD, at least on my copy of its earlier CBS Odyssey incarnation, his 1960 recording remains much more than acceptable.  After Edwards, Szell and Mravinsky, Litton sounds just slightly too tame; their Andante for the opening section is that bit more maestoso – Litton dangerously closer to lethargic than majestic – and their closing Allegro more vivace.

A second hearing reconciled me somewhat to Litton’s finale, but not entirely.  He doesn’t make the change of tempo at the end sound as exciting as his competitors, though you may prefer the manner in which he manages the transition much more smoothly than they do, with no noticeable change of gear.

In the first movement, too, Litton flies in the face of almost universal agreement, with a much slower basic tempo, though this troubled me less than the finale.  The other movements are much better and the Virgin recording is excellent throughout; you’ll need to turn the volume a little higher than usual to get the full benefit.

The performance of The Tempest which concludes the first CD is also excellent; if only the outer movements of the symphony had been as good, this reissue would have been a winner.  I’d have preferred to hear the overture first, however; its quiet opening, superbly realised here, comes as something of an anti-climax after the finale of the Fifth Symphony, even in Litton’s less exciting performance of that finale.  When the storm really breaks, this performance captures all its fury, before peace is convincingly restored at the end.

The Pathétique Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet Overture on the second disc are also excellent.  History seems to be repeating itself here: I’ve just completed a review of another Virgin twofer where part of one CD vitiates otherwise excellent performances, Bob van Asperen’s Bach Toccatas, BWV910-916 (excellent) and Goldberg Variations (let down by slow tempi in one or two variations) on Veritas 6 93198 2.

Romeo and Juliet precedes the Pathétique, which is surely the right way round; why was this order not followed on CD1?  This performance has a strong claim to be considered the finest that I’ve heard.  The Pathétique, too, must come very close to the top of anyone’s list; both have all the energy, where it’s required, which I found wanting in the Fifth.

In the first movement there’s both searing intensity and tenderness and the second movement has plenty of liveliness and bounce – and sadness below the surface, too.  Litton’s tempi are slightly broader than those of Igor Markevitch with the LSO on an unjustly neglected Philips recording from 1967 – 18:50 in the first movement, for example, against Markevitch’s 18:35 and Mravinsky’s 17:38.   This is a long movement, in danger of seeming over-long in some hands, but in none of these accounts does it seem a moment too long.  Mravinsky is still available on the 2-CD set mentioned above, containing Symphonies Nos. 4-6.  Markevitch is, unfortunately, no longer available in either its single-CD incarnation (422 478-2, with Hamlet Overture) or on the 2-CD set with Symphonies Nos.4 and 5 (438 335-2) but you may find remainders of either, and the latter is still to be had as a download from passionato.com.

The third movement may not be quite as molto vivace as in some rival performances, but I didn’t find that a problem.  Markevitch takes only 20 seconds longer than Litton, yet neither misses the sense of pace which keeps the music moving.

Markevitch’s finale is more fast and furious than Litton’s, but it’s arguable that the latter keeps closer to Tchaikovsky’s lamentoso marking at 11:17 than either Markevitch (9:46) or Mravinsky (9:49).  I’m not averse to versions which squeeze more emotion out of this movement than either Litton or Markevich – Fricsay on DG, from memory, for example – but there’s nothing amiss with the slightly less wallowing treatment.

You won’t be seriously disappointed with these Litton performances, and the recording throughout is very good, subject to my point about raising the volume a notch or two.  You’ll be better served, however, by Szell or Edwards in the Fifth Symphony.  The Edwards Fifth plus the Classics for Pleasure reissue of Litton’s Pathétique will cost you only a little more than this Virgin de Virgin set.  You’ll miss the two Shakespeare-inspired overtures but you’ll find ample compensation.  Bear in mind, too, that Edwards’ account of the 1812 Overture on another budget-price CFP disc (5 75567 2) seriously rivals the classic Dorati version on Mercury; this CD will also provide you with a version of Romeo and Juliet to rival Litton’s. 

If you want to try Litton’s Pathétique before you decide to buy, We7 will allow you to listen to the whole symphony free in its CFP format, but you’ll have to put up with intrusive advertising at the start of each track.  You can try Szell’s version of the Fifth Symphony out here, too.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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