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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64 (1888) [45:40]
Capriccio Italien Op. 45 (1880) [14:55]
Cleveland Orchestra/Georg Szell
rec. 23 October 1959 (Symphony), 28 February–1 March (Capriccio), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL 82876 787442 [60:35]


The enduring partnership of Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra was one of the most important conductor-orchestra relationships of the 20th century. Thankfully it was preserved in many fine recordings, this being one of the best. This famous recording sounds better than ever in its latest transfer from Sony Classical.
A sensitive response to dynamic shadings was always a hallmark of a Szell performance, and the opening bars of the symphony offer an excellent example. The orchestral playing is particularly tight in terms of ensemble, so that when the emotional voltage is increased the excitement and intensity are palpable. Only the sophisticated sense of depth and space of a more modern recording is lacking, even though the sound quality is by no means inadequate.
The pacing of the slow movement, with its ebb and flow of tension and relaxation, is handled with consummate skill and artistry. And the great climaxes can seldom have been performed with more commanding intensity than Szell conjures here. Although they do not have the brazen sound of the Leningrad Philharmonic and Yevgeny Mravinsky (DGG 2564 60035 2), the Cleveland players’ powerful brass fanfares do leave the listener feeling exhausted when they have subsided. As a result the search for compassion of the closing phase becomes all the more potent.
The third movement waltz provides the perfect foil, its flowing line beautifully shaped, while the woodwinds play with great skill and refinement. Then the finale has a commanding sweep and a compelling symphonic integrity. In lesser hands this movement can seem to lack direction and cohesiveness, but not here. It is a surprising feature of this work that Tchaikovsky uses so ‘standard’ an orchestra, without the indulgence of percussion. Therefore the blazing peroration which forms the deliberately forced conclusion must rely mainly on the musical momentum leading up to it, which is exactly what Szell achieves. Alongside Mariss Janssons’ excellent Oslo Philharmonic recording (Chandos CHAN 8351), which has the benefit of excellent modern sound, this Szell performance can be a confident recommendation.
The Capriccio Italien is a different matter since it is music that essentially relies upon its very vulgarity. As such the traditional ‘all or nothing’ style of Russian brass playing is probably a bonus, although in one of the best of recent recordings, Andrew Litton urges the Bournemouth Symphony brass to heroic enthusiasm in an exciting performance (Virgin Classics 7243 5 61893 2). This has recently been available in a bargain box containing all the symphonies along with various orchestral bonuses. It goes without saying that Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra produce all the required virtuosity, and the fanfares at the beginning are nothing if not brazen. At a competitive price this Sony issue makes a welcome return to the catalogue.
Terry Barfoot


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