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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 9 October 2009, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900104 [45:38]

It was with Tchaikovsky that Jansons first burst onto my radar, with his poleaxingly brilliant series of the symphonies, recorded in the 1980s in Oslo for Chandos. Despite stiff competition from Pletnev, it’s still my go-to choice for the complete set. However, if you could criticise that Chandos set (and, for that matter, the Pletnev one) then it’s for ungenerous use of disc space, and that’s a criticism to level here, too. There was plenty of room for a coupling here, and the disc is made uncompetitive by having only one symphony on it, something that’s only just forgivable because of the super-budget price.

The performance itself is very good, however. Jansons’ sense of pacing is extremely well judged, the opening sounding steady and lugubrious without ever wallowing, and the first movement’s main Allegro sounds urgent and purposeful. There’s a lovely slowing-up for the first appearance of the lyrical second theme, at which the BRSO strings let their hair down and revel in the sheer beauty of the sound. The music then surges with a lovely sense of ebb and flow into a development that propels onwards, climaxing in an exciting coda.

The middle strings that launch the slow movement are beautifully understated, and the knockout horn solo is a model of sustained legato. When the cellos take up the theme it has a lovely, honeyed quality to it, which is answered when the violins take on the counter-theme. The whole movement is a delight, not least in the music’s pained response to the symphony’s motto theme, which rattles out of the trumpets like machine gun fire. Maybe the odd build is a little mismanaged, but you can forgive that in a live performance, and there are no such quibbles with the debonair Waltz movement that follows.

The finale begins and ends with slow music that here sounds gloriously pompous, slightly undermining the composer’s intended triumphal climax, but the fast music in between crackles with excitement and has a lovely feeling of building. Perhaps it doesn’t burn red hot, but if I’d heard this in the concert hall I’d have been pretty happy. The applause from the Munich audience (given here) is certainly warm, if not exactly ecstatic.

This might not be a library choice, then, and it isn’t as consistently recommendable as Jansons’ earlier Oslo performance, but it’s still warmly enjoyable. BR Klassik also throw in a catalogue to mark the label’s tenth anniversary, though I doubt that will swing many waverers.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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