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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [52:08]
The Voyevoda - Symphonic Ballad, Op. 78 (1890-1) [11:19]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. Abbey Road Studios, November 2012
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6217 [63:27]

I'll admit, I wasn't expecting much. Yondani Butt's early work for ASV - generally yoking unfamiliar scores to repertoire chestnuts, with the conductor leading polished sight-reading orchestras als Gast - had all the earmarks of a vanity discography. Nor did the one disc that I heard, long ago - I no longer even recall the programme - inspire confidence in his baton control or interpretive specificity.
 
In fact this disc delivered a pleasant surprise. This Tchaikovsky Fifth - a recent recording, not a reissue - isn't a routine run-through, but a musically purposeful rendering. The slow introduction is dark and flowing; the strings' warm, soft edge is lovely, even if the clarinets briefly disappear behind them in the second paragraph. The conductor animates the body of the first movement with small, mostly unmarked accents that bring point and shape to the phrases, and he keeps the rhythms buoyant. Only the tuttis, which are hard to "hear through" hint at any technical uncertainty. Then again, I wouldn't swear that all the musical elements are actually lining up properly.
 
The expressive Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza has a few iffy moments. For example, the horn-to-oboe dovetail at 2:26-7 doesn't work, and a few of the melodic strands in the subsequent passage come briefly unstuck. These are however nothing next to the general insecurity of Barenboim's two Warner Classics accounts, and here the tuttis are fine. Butt launches the exposition "codetta" at 4:17 with subtle grace, and shapes it sensitively. You might, however, question the conductor's rather restrained tempo relationships. He picks up only minimally at the Moderato con anima at 6:20, and barely acknowledges the terraced accelerations in the return. The impetuousness that comes naturally to so many seems not to be part of Butt's makeup. Still, the tempi aren't "slow" - just a bit pokey. They allow for clean textures and a singing tone, which are hardly bad.
 
A similar mild deliberation pays off, however, in the last two movements. The waltz is gracefully tinted. The blend of bassoon and chalumeau clarinets at 0:50 is lovely. Also the rushing figures of the Trio section go with a nice point and thrust. The Finale is admirable: affirmative at the start, crisp and buoyant in the Allegro, with no nonsense about slowing down for the motto theme. The closing sections reminded me of the Markevitch recording. The motto's climactic return is steady and martial; then, while the blunted, indistinct arrival of the coda is briefly disorienting, the final 6/4 steps smartly.
 
The late tone-poem The Voyevoda is presumably intended as the album's "draw", in the spirit of those ASV programs. The opening gallops credibly; the second theme-group, with its three-bar phrases, could be out of one of the ballets. A grim conclusion foreshadows the Pathétique Symphony. There's plenty of good music in the score but the piece as a whole isn't very good. The diverse themes aren't knitted together coherently and it comes off as empty-headed. Butt does what he can with it, although stronger, more pointed rhythms of the sort that featured in the Fifth Symphony would have given his rather quick opening a more bracing effect.
 
The LSO's polished, evenly balanced tone is a pleasure to hear, and the sound reproduction is fine.
 
This probably won't shake your existing loyalties in the symphony. Mine are the historical recordings of Markevitch (Philips -- stereo, yes, but over forty years old!) or Cantelli (Music and Arts). That said, it's worth hearing if you want your Tchaikovsky clean-limbed and in modern sound. For The Voyevoda and the other obscure tone-poems, I still return to Inbal's Philips LP, which may or may not have been reissued on silver disc.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky symphony 5


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