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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [52:08]
The Voyevoda – Symphonic Ballad, Op. 78 (1891) [11:19]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. 16, 19 November 2012, Abbey Road Studios, London.
I quite admired Yondani Butt’s Beethoven recordings (see review), so was intrigued to hear what he would come up with in Tchaikovsky. There are so many recordings of this and Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies that making comparisons becomes a dizzying prospect. What I can guarantee is that this is a very good recording and performance with no fluffs or glitches – a highly professional production indeed.
With the Symphony No. 5 there are arguably two camps: the more edgy ‘all-risk’ interpretation on one side, and the more comfortable and expressive point of view as an opposite. These are appalling generalisations, but with the first movement’s timing of 16:03 you can be reasonably sure that Butt’s performance isn’t likely to be one which burns the seat of your trousers. In some ways he is comparable with Antonio Pappano’s EMI set, which is decidedly more on the lyrical than the dramatic side (see review). The opening is nicely moody and atmospheric and plenty of animation in the playing later on, but there are moments in the latter stages, say from around the 13th minute, that he seems willing to let the music almost stop entirely. Even with steady tempi his shaping of the music’s architecture is sound enough. It may be more Bruckner than Bach, but still sounds pretty good.
The second movement horn solo is good if a little androgynous, and you realise that the string sound, while lush and full, is perhaps a little on the dull side. I don’t think there’s any problem with the recording in this regard, but rather a somewhat generalised approach to the texture at those in-between points of greater relaxation. We’re not really ‘gripped’, as if every player were committed to a particular colour in each and every bar, as if they were playing in a string quartet. There is a Philips recording with Valery Gergiev which illustrates this point (see review). The strings aren’t always wringing every note dry for every drop of emotion, but they are always moving towards something; with distinctive shading and touches of detail which carry you forward even when the music is receding. Gergiev’s Valse is about a minute shorter than Butt’s, which is nice, but doesn’t really lift you out of your seat into an imaginary ballroom. The Finale has a noble feel, but by now the frustrations are outweighing the benefits – the opening marking of Andante maestoso wallowing worryingly at times. There is something to be said for broad tempi, but you don’t sense the kind of vision which might make such an approach valid in this case. Butt’s final movement is 14:18, so I had to reach for Sergio Celibidache’s remarkable Munich recording which comes in at 14:19 (see review and other comparisons here). This may not be all things to all people, but with Celibidache you always have the feeling of something brewing, a crackling atmosphere of anticipation which I fear lacks with Butt.
As ever, the playing is always very fine, and things pick up later on in the finale, with sharp dynamic contrasts and a degree of urgency communicated. If you have become a fan of Yondani Butt’s recordings and have doubts about adding this to your collection then don’t take my word as the last on this performance. With my record shop hat on I would always caution that other, perhaps more inspirational performances are to be had, but at the same time this is still a very fine recording, and if your listening demands are less obsessively picky and critical than that of this seasoned old reviewer then you will undoubtedly find a great deal to enjoy here.
The programme is filled out with The Voyevoda, a Symphonic Ballad which shares a name but nothing else with Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name. This is a dramatic score with an equally dramatic history, and it comes up sounding rather fresher than the symphony in this recording, perhaps because of its relative lack of familiarity. Interestingly, this includes the composer’s first use of the celesta which adds a little extra sparkle but doesn’t otherwise have a huge impact. Booklet notes are nicely written by Joanna Wyld, and we excuse the occasional little typo which at one point includes a date of 1790.
Dominy Clements

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