Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Hamlet – Fantasy Overture, Op.67
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 16 & 17 October 2008 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2009
CD No: ORFEO C 780 091 A
Duration: 65 minutes
It’s a brave decision to choose the much-recorded Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony as the first release of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its recently appointed conductor Andris Nelsons. Although neither Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo (Nelsons’s predecessors in Birmingham) recorded any of Tchaikovsky’s music, the wider discographical world suggests that any new recording of this music will have to be exceptional to compete.
This new account (the beginning of a Tchaikovsky cycle it seems) may not be that extraordinary, but it is fresh-faced and likeable, and reports – in excellent sound that is spacious, lucid and dynamic – that the combination of the CBSO and Nelsons is one to reckon with.
The layout of the disc places the symphony before Hamlet; ideally it should be the other way round. Nevertheless, the melancholy opening of the symphony is wonderfully conveyed from the very first bar, the CBSO concentrated as to timbre and expression. Nelsons sees no point in being novel for its own sake; his handling of the Allegro con anima strides forth purposefully and is cleanly detailed, and he avoids losing the shape of the music through exaggeration; this has the feel of a concert performance rather than playing for microphones (it is though a dedicated studio production) with playing that is certain, vital and spontaneous, Nelsons encouraging both an unanimous response and some tangy-sounding woodwind-playing; this maybe an English orchestra but its musicians are adaptable to finding a Slavic edge that is so-right for the music.
With the second-movement Andante cantabile – arrived at with between-movement studio ‘noise’ to suggest that the musicians went straight into it – Nelsons takes an unusually slow tempo for the opening bars; out of such brooding comes a rich horn solo from an unnamed player (who deserves a credit) to which the dark lower strings offer tangible and pertinent counterpoint. Nelsons is quite volatile in this movement, a little jerky, too, but there’s an eloquence that makes this symphony, one of the most familiar, seem like a new discovery for the players and for the listener.
The following ‘Waltz’ is elegantly turned and the finale is something of a triumph, literally so come the final bars, but more so because of Nelsons’s deliberate overall tempo (no glib rush-through this) giving the music a point that is not always the case but with no loss of climax and apotheosis.
Impressive, then, and so too is Hamlet, which is a relative rarity and here given a similarly thought-through interpretation, one that reminds of the music’s strength, drama and melodic generosity, Nelsons again ensuring that Tchaikovsky’s colourful orchestration is clear and well-balanced; and, as in the symphony, there is always something ‘new’ to discover: a different angle, a hitherto-lost detail. A thoroughly recommend release – for music-lovers and audiophiles!