Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807381

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the towering and tragic figures in the world of classical music. Born in 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, he started composing in 1850 though he first entered government work as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. By 1863, he left and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied orchestration under Anton Rubenstein. Just a few years later in 1865, Tchaikovsky was appointed Professor of Composition at the newly formed Conservatory of Music in Moscow.

Tchaikovsky is one of the many figures from the classical era whose live was a wild mixture of despair, elation, success and turmoil. Being homosexual, his 1877 marriage was a short-lived disaster that caused deep emotional trauma. After only two weeks of marriage, he attempted suicide – unsuccessfully so and fortunate for the music world. Just a month later, Tchaikovsky fled to St. Petersburg to separate permanently from his wife. It was shortly after this interlude that Tchaikovsky met Madame Nadezha von Meck who was to become an ardent financial supporter and pen pal.

Tchaikovsky was a composer comfortable with many styles. He composed six numbered symphonies and one unnumbered symphonic work called Manfred. He wrote 5 operas though only The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin enjoy regular production today. He composed three piano concertos, his 1st Concerto dedicated to the famed Nicholas Rubenstein who declared it to be "poorly composed" and "unplayable", leading Tchaikovsky to alter the dedication to Hans von Bülow. Three major ballets (The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake) remain major global attractions. The list does not stop there. Numerous tone poems like Romeo and Juliet and the famed 1812 Overture were popular and still are today.

Tchaikovsky came to the United Sates in 1891 and was involved in the opening ceremonies of Carnegie Hall where he conducted many of his pieces to be heard for the first time by American audiences. Outside his ballets, his symphonies are probably his best-known works. There's an interesting split of character between his symphonies, with the first three bright, cheerful and full of nationalistic pride, the last three darker, dealing with fate, turmoil, and -- in his Sixth -- outright despair. Tchaikovsky died under mysterious circumstances in 1893. Most historians attribute his death to cholera though many feel arsenic poisoning was responsible.

The recording featured here is one of many available on disc of this symphony. This particular recording was brought to my attention because there was some press stating the tempi of this performance were closer to what the composer indicated on his score. Debate has always raged over the adherence to written metronome markings and even Aaron Copland changed tempi when he conducted different orchestras. According to Tchaikovsky's notations, the two main directions in the 1st movement are quarter note equals 80 in the "Andante" and for the "Allegro con anima", a dotted quarter note equals 104. Artur Rodzinski apparently started the current slower trend of the "Andante" with a quarter note equalling 60 and the "Allegro" with a dotted quarter note 96. Many other performances and recordings have adopted these slower tempi.

Daniele Gatti's recording with the Royal Philharmonic is one which presents the opening movement closer to what Tchaikovsky indicated. The 1st movement (and its opening e-minor woodwind chorale), is marked "Andante - Allegro con anima" and the first indication of a substantial tempo change. The opening theme is used extensively throughout the symphony. Gatti takes the opening movement at a brisk tempo for a total time of 12:46, while my other two favorite recordings (Järvi/Gothenburg at 15:33 and Solti/Chicago at 14:11) both use the standardized tempi as I've heard at live performances. Gatti's energy in the opening movement make for a performance that is considerably fresher than either of my two other recordings. Gatti (like Solti) really let the brass shine while Järvi keeps the brass a little subdued in an effort to capture fine warm blending between sections. The strings here play with a warm lush sound that is captured nicely by the Harmonia Mundi team.

The 2nd movement is quite accomplished and opens with a rather famous horn solo. However, the soloist here has some rather bumpy slurs and does not play as well as his colleagues on either the Järvi or the Solti. Despite this, the 2nd movement is rendered very emotionally, with the massed strings lush, warm and superbly articulated. As in the first movement, timbre and placement of the instruments is clear and the different sections are properly balanced across the soundstage. The 3rd movement proceeds at a pace in keeping with the Järvi and the Solti. The waltzy energy moves nicely and Gatti catches the mood with flair. Throughout this movement, there are some amazing exchanges between individual woodwinds and the strings. Especially engaging are musical lines traded between the various wind sections played with extreme finesse. Transitions are expertly handled and the sound is simply top notch and has a very organic feel.

The 4th and final movement is my favorite in this symphony. It should be noted that it is the first movement only that is executed with the original tempi. 12:33 in the 4th is right between the Järvi and Solti (11:53 and 13:09, respectively). The movement starts off with the symphony's opening theme now played by a lush string section and having moved from e minor to E Major, making for a much more upbeat and jubilant feeling. Throughout, Gatti modulates the proceedings for very exciting transitions and the orchestra responds with passion. The various sections are captured with a natural and organic feel and once again across a hugely proportioned soundstage. The ending with its sudden acceleration in the last section makes for a very exciting conclusion.

This recording of Tchaikovsky's 5th is paired with one of his symphonic fantasy pieces, Romeo and Juliet while the Järvi includes yet another composition called The Voyevoda with which I am starting to familiarize myself. This particular SACD offers a special treat for anyone who wants to enjoy a fresh approach over the many predictable standard renditions of Tchaikovsky's 5th. Anyone unfamiliar with this great composer would be well served by this hybrid SACD. Harmonia Mundi has created a simply stunning recording with plenty of air, exceptional soundstaging, excellent spatial cues, marvelous playing and plenty of drama, never suffering excessive miking or overzealous editing. Highly recommended.

Other commendable recordings of this work:
Solti/Chicago/London [ADRM 471 723-2]
Järvi/Gothenburg/BIS [BIS-SACD-1408]