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:
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
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
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.