Tchaikovsky’s 5th – Norman Del Mar

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Suite No.3 in G, Op.55 – Theme and Variations

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Norman Del Mar

Symphony recorded January 1979 in Watford Town Hall; Theme and Variations in January 1978 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2003

We can agree or not on the merits of a particular performance. When it comes to, say, Gergiev’s much-vaunted Philips CD of Tchaikovsky 5, his pulling-about of sections simply renders Tchaikovsky’s structures meaningless; add in the Vienna Philharmonic’s plush textures for Gergiev to manufacture a product. Gergiev’s not for me then. But it’s not entirely down to tempo manipulation – neither Koussevitzky nor Kletzki steer a clear line in their renditions of this symphony, which can be found in IMG Artists’ “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series, yet both are altogether more convincing in terms of timing, and Kletzki’s is a marvellous reading overall.

A snobbish or star-struck attitude might conclude that an English gent called Norman couldn’t possibly deliver a ’Tchaik 5’ that counts with the very best – and be better than a hyped one. Well, he does. Norman Del Mar (1919-94) – a horn player in the Royal Philharmonic and then Beecham’s assistant, a teacher, author (superb books on Richard Strauss, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Beethoven, and on the orchestra as an entity) and, as conductor, appointments with the BBC Scottish and in Gothenburg and Åarhus. While Del Mar could seem rather boffin-like in appearance (bushy eyebrows as I recall), he was both encyclopaedic in knowledge and analytical in purpose.

He also had a rousing baton, and here the LPO is indeed roused – there’s some thrilling music-making. In what seem unedited takes, Del Mar encourages both a sensitive and fully-charged traversal of Tchaikovsky’s dark-to-light symphony without descending into crudity. Neither is anything manicured or corrupted – one is left with an honest and sympathetic account that lacks nothing in dynamic variety, colour or excitement – all of it from within the music. At times in the first movement, Del Mar does hamper the flow with some less than felicitous and elongated touches – but he has the spirit of the music, knows it from the inside and has the LPO at one with itself and with his thoughtful and heady approach. Del Mar’s is a beautifully detailed and balanced account.

Del Mar’s temperament – commitment, enjoyment, some volatility, great learning behind the demonstration, music’s phrases shaped with love (sometimes seduction) and rhythms nudged with a twinkle in the eye – bring a wholly marvellous Theme and Variations; great piece! Here Del Mar opts for antiphonal violins (a shame he doesn’t in the symphony), which increases the aural pleasure above that of a rollicking and imaginative performance. David Nolan is the rich-toned and virtuoso solo violinist.

For those that love this music, I suggest that Del Mar is an indispensable addition to the library. One or two recent CFP transfers have been dodgy (Loughran’s Rachmaninov 2 being unlistenable), but the sound here is excellent and in good repair – most probably because the re-mastering is from 1995; I’m not sure that, in some cases, recent advances in computer technology have done any favours to the music itself – just as long as all hiss is banished!

That’s another story – meanwhile this particular CD is recommended with all possible enthusiasm.

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