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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [47:02]
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876) [26:02]
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/Paavo Järvi
rec. January 2020 and October 2019 (Francesca da Rimini), Maag Halle, Zürich
ALPHA CLASSICS 659 [74:00]

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony opens, like the Fourth before it, and like Beethoven’s Fifth for that matter, with fate knocking at the door. Those who find this idea unconvincing – or are simply fed up of hearing it – should know that, in this case, it comes from the composer himself. But fate, though an irresistible force, can often be a force for good. The luckier ones amongst us are aware of this, and the Fifth confirms it, by a journey that ends in triumph. This is Tchaikovsky, however, so the road is difficult; and victory, though hard won, could well be no more than provisional.

This very fine performance from Zurich begins in deep melancholy rather than foreboding, the two clarinets in unison beautifully woody in the lower register. The movement as a whole positively fizzes with musical invention, and Järvi is more than keen to go along with it. The overall tempo for the movement is uncontroversial, as it is for pretty much the whole work – only once did I mark anything to do with basic tempo in my notes. Järvi is refreshingly flexible as regards pulse, but his expressive manoeuvres all seem natural and spontaneous. How naturally he eases off the pulse for the rising string phrase – with answering woodwind motif – that sounds like it’s going to be the second subject, just as he does in the singing, D major melody that is the real second subject shortly afterwards. The many dramatic moments are skilfully handled too, with striking, dogged tread to launch the movement’s coda.

Järvi’s way with the opening bars of the slow movement makes rather more of them than a simple series of preparatory chords. I have heard slower accounts of this movement, but the chosen tempo avoids indulgence whilst giving the musicians time to express themselves. This the principal horn, and a little later in duet with the principal clarinet, do most successfully. If the clarinet could be a little louder the echo effect is none the less brought out most beautifully. There is a moment in this movement, as there is in the finale too, where tenderness seems to be getting the upper hand but is cut off with a shocking explosion of violence followed by disillusion. This is marked fff in the score, superbly handled here, and the listener notices how careful Järvi is throughout to show that ff and fff are not at all the same thing. The third movement is a waltz that could have come from one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets – or so one thinks at first. I’m no dancer, but even those with greater skills than I would have difficulty dancing the waltz to this music, especially when fate returns to the scene. The unexpectedly loud ending is not the only equivocal feature of this movement, whose conflicting elements are skilfully managed in this performance.

Despite the sombre colours, the finale opens with the fate motif in the major key, the music steadfast, a glimmer of hope already. Once the main section of the movement is launched, Järvi never lets up. Tempi are rapid, the playing of virtuoso standard. A key event for this listener is the arrival of the second theme, an absolutely thrilling moment with the lower strings inexorably driving the music on. Järvi does not disappoint; indeed, driving the music on is exactly what he does, right up to the final pages, particularly forceful and exciting.

Hans Keller once wrote that the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was so well known that he was almost embarrassed to be writing about it. I feel much the same when it comes to comparing this new performance with earlier ones, if only because they are so numerous, and with so many of outstanding merit. Two classic performances are those by Mravinsky (DG), or Maris Jansons (Chandos), part of his marvellous series with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. I’d like to recommend two byways. Constantin Silvestri was a fine conductor indeed, and readers are encouraged to seek out his 1957 performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI Warner. Another very satisfying reading, and an intriguing prospect that pays handsomely, was released by BIS in 2013. Christian Lindberg conducts the Arctic Philharmonic.

Fate also has a hand in the story of Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo, though in their case the price to pay for an illicit love affair is literally a fate worse than death. I’ve never been able to get on with this work, finding that the story brought out the worst in Tchaikovsky, whereas the best of him, as in the Fifth Symphony and so many other works, and this despite all the drama and anguish, conveys sentiments which are both grand and noble. But Järvi and his marvellous orchestra play the work for all it is worth, its passion and violence brought out in all its Technicolor ferocity.

The booklet suggests that these were live performances, which might account for the white-hot performance of Francesca da Rimini, as well as the gripping final pages of the symphony. There is not a sign of audience noise and no applause at the end. The recording is outstanding, full, rich and with impeccable balance. The booklet carries a short essay in German and in English by Ulrike Thiele, some attractive photographs taken in performance and, commendably, a full list of the orchestra’s members.

William Hedley



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