Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5; 1812 Overture. © 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

CD Spotlight

Startlingly Fresh and Very American

PATRICK MAXWELL is impressed by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra's Tchaikovsky

'... impassioned string playing and vibrant conducting.'


A fair amount of serious writing about Tchaikovsky starts by staking its claim to writing about such a composer in such a way at all. It's fair to say that the reputation of Russia's supreme melodist took something of a hit from those who took against his extraordinary popularity in twentieth century America. 'No more Tchaikovsky symphonies' asserted Simon Rattle when he first took to the stage of the Proms, and you can see why: the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth had and continue to take an all-too-predictable slot in the last forty-five minutes of a concert programme.

Such reactions were probably most of all against the kinds of recordings as this sumptuous one of the Fifth Symphony from the Utah Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maurice Abravanel.

Listen — Tchaikovsky: Andante (Symphony No 5 in E minor)
(VOX-NX-3023CD track 1, 0:05-0:57)
℗ 1974 Vox Productions Inc / 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The vibrato-heavy string playing, the sense of forward motion very typical of its place and time, and the sheer emotional intensity of Tchaikovsky's high-points. This recording is taken from the original 1974 release, which was a part of the complete orchestral works undertaken in the last part of Abravanel's remarkable tenure in Utah: it was under his thirty-two years that the orchestra changed from a part-time community band to one of America's foremost provincial professional groups.

Despite some occasional rough moments, which clearly separate this disc from the essentially perfect and ubiquitous recordings of Petrenko at Berlin or of Noseda at the LSO, Abravanel nevertheless brings a startlingly fresh and very American tone to the climaxes of the first movement.

Listen — Tchaikovsky: Allegro con anima (Symphony No 5 in E minor)
(VOX-NX-3023CD track 1, 10:19-10:56)
℗ 1974 Vox Productions Inc / 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The string sound is well defined and powerful, and the brass playing in the return of the 'fate motif' of the second movement is exhilarating. In fact, the articulation of the opening is markedly more exacting than many other discs; more than anything, it is the intensity of the highpoints that give this recording such an energetic character. There are some points where a little more time could even have been welcome, especially in the vast landscape of the second movement.

Listen — Tchaikovsky: Andante cantabile (Symphony No 5 in E minor)
(VOX-NX-3023CD track 2, 0:00-0:54)
℗ 1974 Vox Productions Inc / 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

More than anything, Tchaikovsky's late symphonies do offer more of a clear narrative, a sense of musical journey, that is unique. Their popularity must lie in something of that kind, whatever his decisions about musical form. The wonderful melodies of the first and second movements in this symphony, as well as his majestically simple orchestration, manage to create a symphony with as much a sense of sheer space that characterises the Fifth with the same sense of emotion laid bare as in the opening of the Fourth or the last movement of the Sixth.

Listen — Tchaikovsky: Andante maestoso (Symphony No 5 in E minor)
(VOX-NX-3023CD track 4, 0:00-0:59)
℗ 1974 Vox Productions Inc / 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The composer was probably right to say that the final movement is too long, with a wildly optimistic coda that strikes something of an odd note of unmitigated triumph.

Speaking of unmitigated triumph, Abravanel adds in the 1812 Overture to this recording, a piece which is sheer bait to the Tchaikovsky critics, with its martial tunes and additions of cannon fire.

Listen — Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
(VOX-NX-3023CD track 5, 0:04-0:59)
℗ 1974 Vox Productions Inc / 2023 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Never mind that the composer 'detested' this work, as we are reminded in Richard Freed's entertaining sleeve notes, because the piece is a concert favourite, especially in America. It is performed with appropriate gusto here, but the real highlight of this disc is the impassioned string playing and vibrant conducting. Well worth listening to for its time and era, for that wonderfully American grasp of Russian music, this is a disc that won't have seen its last release.

Copyright © 18 July 2023 Patrick Maxwell,
Buckinghamshire, UK



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