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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64 [44:01]
Suite from the Ballet - Swan Lake [25.57]
Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra (Nordnorsk Symfoniorkester)/Christian Lindberg
rec. Harstad Kulturhus, Norway January/February 2012, original format 24bit/96kHz
stereo/multichannel; reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-SACD-2018 [70:48]

I am impressed by this performance but slightly bemused that a comparatively small orchestra should not only record this repertoire but also achieve such apparent success in, of all places, the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, with a performance of the symphony in particular. I can find no evidence of the size of Tchaikovsky's orchestra when he gave the premiere in St Petersburg in November 1888 so this all remains speculative.
The picturesquely named 'Arctic Philharmonic' is more sensibly called the 'Nordnorsk Opera og Symfoniorkester AS' on their Norwegian website, suggesting the influence of the marketing men on the choice of English name. They were formed in 2009 by a combining of two chamber sized groups: as they state themselves the "Bodø Sinfonietta and Tromsø Chamber Orchestra as the core, supplemented by The Norwegian Army Band Northern Norway and Landsdelsmusikerne i Nord-Norge".
I am hugely impressed that at a time when most of the world was cutting cultural institutions the North Norway music world decided to form a new symphony orchestra. Amazing, and a lesson to the rest of us but, and this is the reason for my preamble, they do sound as if their string body is below the strength usually encountered in Tchaikovsky performances. My notes on the recordings are littered with comments about an 'underweight' sound in that department. This could be viewed as a back-handed compliment to the superb BIS engineering of Matthais Spitzbarth. As always this company shows us how to record an orchestra with clarity and spaciousness. The volume needs to be raised a notch or two above usual for enough impact in the quiet passages.
The performance is excellent. The Andante introduction is taken very slowly and the Allegro con anima very fast, I think even faster than Mravinsky's classic accounts of 1956 and 1961 available on DG. Fortunately the quality of these players is high enough for there to be no loss of accuracy at this tempo. On the other hand the big climaxes do reflect the comparatively lightweight sound. In comparing any recording of this symphony with those of the Leningrad Philharmonic and Mravinsky the other recordings always lose out. In the second movement the woodwind soloists sound lovely and the movement suffers less from thinner string tone. The third movement waltz is cleanly phrased and sounds more balletic than usual. The finale was always a Mravinsky show-stopper and the Arctic Philharmonic cannot match his furious and precipitous attack. They come over as clipped and precise in the allegro vivace, rather than urgent. The timpani player is excellently enthusiastic here.
The long suite drawn from Swan Lake for his publisher in 1900, long after the composer's death, is very good and one can hear the lighter textures as a positive advantage is this lovely ballet score.
Dave Billinge

Previous review: Brian Reinhart

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky Symphony 5