Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [44:11]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Siegfried Kurz
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, January 1978

Siegfried Kurz's performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth is refreshing. He unfolds the music naturally, allowing the great melodies to flow and breathe, with a clear-eyed dignity that avoids the over-the-top bathos favored in some quarters. Kurz avoids the dramatic tempo adjustments favored by "tradition," maintaining direct rhythmic address even at softer dynamics. Firmly grounded rhythms, of the sort one expects from German musicians, benefit the Finale, where the driving main Allegro vivace is sufficiently weighted that it's not a mad rush. But Kurz also knows the value of contrast - lightening the textures, for example, as the tempo of the Andante cantabile picks up, beginning at 2:08.

After a moody but unportentous introduction - where, admittedly, the two clarinets don't immediately settle on their unison tuning - the first movement treads steadily, with the marziale element predominating. The contrasting themes are given room to expand, but there's no slamming on of the brakes for the third group, at 5:26 and 11:26. Kurz similarly doesn't telegraph the climaxes of the Andante with ham-fisted, grandiose set-ups: the motto theme's second intrusion, at 10:17, is the more effective for its abruptness. The waltz is poised, yearning but unclouded; the scurrying central section is crisp and energetic, the motto's brief return chipper rather than disturbing. The Finale begins as a solemn, affirmative anthem. We hear more detail than usual in the body of the movement, and only a few small ritards nod to convention, so that, in the triumphal coda, the slight rhetorical broadening at 10:38 registers as a major event.

The Staatskapelle Dresden plays handsomely, with the blended, homogeneous string sonority that is its hallmark - listen to the vibrant low chords at the Andante's start - but there's enough rhythmic point and variety of articulation to enliven the cushiony sound, thus avoiding the textural bloat of Masur's Leipzig account (Teldec/Warner).. Save for the clarinet problem cited earlier, the woodwinds are good - especially the lustrous solo oboe - and mostly come across clearly, though they don't stand out against the strings as they do in more conspicuously "engineered" productions. The recorded sound is fine, conveying a concert-hall overhang without obscuring detail or blunting the textural contours. The low strings are present and focused, with a nice burr on the attacks.

I enjoyed this unlikely performance far more than many higher-profiled editions; in its unmannered musicality, it's comparable to the lean, terse Markevitch account (Philips) or Cantelli's rigorous yet lyrical one (Music & Arts). If you prefer old-fashioned glamour, Ormandy's Philadelphians serve it up nicely, in a straightforward reading; the Sony version is more cohesive than the RCA remake, which is, in turn, better than the very late Delos. Since Berlin Classics CDs generally sell more or less at mid-price, I assumed their "Reference" series might be a budget line; this would mitigate the stingy program, presenting the symphony alone on the disc. However, it is also mid-price.

Stephen Francis Vasta

I enjoyed this unlikely performance far more than many higher-profiled editions.e