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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) [50:33]
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture (1869-70, rev. 1880) [20:25]
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, September, 2014, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SFS MEDIA SFS0062 SACD [70:58]

The first thing to be said about this new release by the San Francisco Symphony is that these performances offer world class playing – as you’d expect from an orchestra of this stature – and that the SACD sound is extremely fine. The orchestra is presented in recordings of great clarity and there’s a pleasing amplitude to the sound. The performances were recorded in concert but the San Francisco audience is commendably silent. The only time I was aware of their presence was when they applauded at the end of Romeo and Juliet – oddly, there’s no applause after the symphony.

The Fifth Symphony is placed first on the disc. The first movement introduction is as measured as I can recall hearing it; I’d describe the performance as pronounced. Once the Allegro con anima gets going I noticed that the woodwind are quite prominent in the texture – though not excessively so. Tilson Thomas fashions a very detailed performance – the clarity with which individual lines can be heard is by no means solely the work of the engineers – and one can relish the quality of the playing. However, as the movement unfolded I waited in vain for the music truly to catch fire; it’s just a bit too deliberate. It’s a cultivated performance, to be sure, but I think it’s a bit too calculating. I turned to the 2008 recording by the CBSO and Andris Nelsons (review). This Birmingham recording was made, I think, under studio conditions but it has far more surge and passion about it. Indeed, heard side by side you might think the Nelsons account, rather than the Tilson Thomas performance was the live one. There’s much more excitement with Nelsons.

The second movement is distinguished by some fine playing from the SFS principal horn, Robert Ward and later in the movement all the woodwind principals take their cue from him and offer some lovely, well-characterised solos. The music is expressively shaped and phrased – one is reminded again that the San Francisco orchestra is a top rank ensemble – and lots of inner detail comes out in a very natural way. And yet … once more the performance doesn’t sweep me along. Nelsons has an equally splendid horn player - Elspeth Dutch, I imagine - and he adopts a slightly more flowing tempo. That’s one reason why I prefer his way with the music to the Tilson Thomas approach. But even more importantly, Nelsons’ performance has more sweep and ardour to it. I also listened to Yevgeny Mravinsky’s 1960 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, which I have in the DG incarnation rather than the recent Pristine Audio transfer (review). The Leningrad horn player has that distinctive East European timbre, which won’t be to all tastes but which has the aura of authenticity. As was the case in the first movement Mravinsky delivers highly charged climaxes in a way that neither Nelsons nor Tilson Thomas can match. His is a performance that consistently has the listener on the edge of his or her seat.

Tilson Thomas offers a polished and refined account of the third movement but I think he’s most successful in the finale. The Allegro vivace isn’t a tearaway affair but the pacing is sensible and I detect more fire in the music-making than has been the case hitherto. Nelsons is quite a bit faster in the Allegro vivace and delivers more of an adrenalin rush than Tilson Thomas though his faster reading is never uncontrolled. Mention of adrenalin inevitably brings Mravinsky to mind. He conducts the finale like a man possessed and his Allegro vivace is unmatched for speed in my experience; indeed, some might think his is a lunatic pace. Only a conductor of Mravinsky’s iron discipline could get away with this but the superbly drilled Leningrad orchestra delivers and the miracle is that the music doesn’t sound gabbled. That said, I think the Mravinsky way with this movement is one that I’d only want to experience occasionally – a high days and holidays performance. Just for the record Tilson Thomas takes 13:24 for the finale and Nelsons 12:16; Mravinsky and his Leningrad thoroughbreds sprint to the finishing line in a mere 11:01.

This, then, is a sophisticated and superbly played performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. But I think that other conductors – and not just Mravinsky and Nelsons – deliver more in terms of passion and romantic fervour than does Tilson Thomas.

It’s something of a surprise, therefore – and a welcome one – to find that he’s more successful with Romeo and Juliet. Once again the playing is extremely refined but this time Tilson Thomas brings the requisite fire, dash and a touch of drama to the music. The love music is beautifully done on its first appearance (7:19 - 10:42). Its reprise (14:03) is ardently romantic and here the SFS strings, while projecting the music strongly don’t sacrifice the sheen on their tone. Overall, in Romeo and Juliet Tilson Thomas gets much closer to what I’d expect to hear in a Tchaikovsky performance. If only the symphony had been done in a similar fashion.

John Quinn



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