Symphony Study No. 41 | Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

by Glenn on March 20, 2016

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in eminor, Op. 64
First Performance: St. Petersburg | 17 November 1888

Andante—Allegro con anima
Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
Valse: Allegro moderato
Finale: Andante maestoso; Allegro vivace; Moderato assai e molto maestoso; Presto

Listening to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is like pulling out that favorite sweatshirt you haven’t worn in a while. It wears easy.

This is the version of this symphony I imagine I’ve heard the most. Hearing it the other night was a joy. Unlike the previous symphony in this exploration, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No.5, which I can’t recall previously ever actually sitting down and listening to, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was another symphony that I know pretty well but has sat on the shelf unlistened to for years—although I know I’ve heard snippets on the classical radio station while driving. What a different aural experience from the confusing “I don’t know what to expect” aspect of Bruckner to the nostalgic “Oh, I remember this” quality of Tchaikovsky. Regarding his Fourth, I wrote that Tchaikovsky is accessible. I wonder to what extent he is simply more familiar. I wonder if I will ever feel that way about Bruckner.

There are no rules for categorizing symphonies, but Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 can fit into a couple of different boxes.

One is the transformation symphony—in this case from dark to light. We have a dark melody—a dirge—in the first movement that becomes a triumphant march at the end. Thematically, this is similar to what Tchaikovsky did in his Fourth Symphony—the alarming “Fate” motif is absorbed into a buoyant, hyper-kinetic finale, which is I suppose what prompts the joke about Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies—that he wrote one symphony three times, which may be true about the Fourth and Fifth, but the Sixth seems like it is in a special category.

I can also see Tchaikovsky’s Fifth as a cyclical symphony, like Elgar’s First, where the same melody keeps appearing over and over.

There are no judgments here. The purpose of categorizing is simply to have a way to talk about what happens in the evolution of the symphony over the years from Beethoven on.

*  *  *

What I didn’t remember about the Ormandy recording was the amount of portamento in the violins. To get from one note to the next on the same string, you can either place a finger directly on the next note (or remove a finger with another already in place), or you can slide your finger that’s currently on one note to the next note. Portamento is the term for that sliding action on a string instrument. I am not a string player, but I am told this isn’t easy, particularly with a group of people.

Some composers indicated portamento in their scores—there are some magical moments in Gustav Mahler’s music, for example, where he does this.

But it was also a general performance practice for orchestras and soloists in the early 1900’s. There is a history of this—another time, perhaps, when I can find my notes from studies at Claremont Graduate School—but you can hear examples on early recordings. I’m sure this is an oversimplification, but over the course of the first part of the 20th century, portamento largely went away and the use of vibrato increased. Except in Philadelphia.

You can here a little bit of portamento here in this brief excerpt from the second movement (recorded in 1959):

It’s in the first movement, though, that the Philadelphia strings really cut loose. Here are two short excerpts from the first movement which are, depending on your perspective, either glorious or hideous:

Here is the actual violin part:

Violin Excerpt T5

You either like this style or you don’t. I’m in the It’s glorious camp. It certainly adds an extra emotional, “old world” quality to the music, although today it feels like a throwback. I’m not sure how I would feel attending a concert and hearing this kind of stylized playing today 55+ years after this recording. By way of comparison, I listened to these same excerpts from the first movement by contemporaries of Philadelphia/Ormandy.

Here is how Herbert von Karajan takes it with the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance from (I believe) the late 1970’s.

Karajan didn’t seem to mind adding a little extra something to the music, either. There is much less portamento, but I notice at the end of bar 178 an extra added ornament that sounds like something an operatic vocalist would do. It isn’t indicated in the score.

The thing I notice about the Berlin strings is that, at least in these two excerpts, they seem to play with a more legato, although still high-octane, style. The Berlin Philharmonic is the musical equivalent of a high-end, high-performance,  German automobile, perhaps a 1974 Porsche Carrera RS 3.01 or 1987 Porsche 959 B or 1975 Porsche 911 31 Turbo RSR, all of which, fittingly, Karajan owned. (He liked his cars like his orchestra or vice versa.) The latter made a Berliner Philharmoniker CD cover.

I was curious how a Russian orchestra would play this. Here is Yevgeny Mravinsky and the (then) Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording from (I believe) 1960.

Of the three examples, the latter appears to be the most technically correct in terms of notated dynamics. What I notice here is that by keeping the violins a little more subdued—they are marked p after all—the color of the woodwinds in the background comes through better. In bar 175 the violins add a decrescendo that adds a sigh to the music.

I listened in full to both the Ormandy/Philadelphia and the Mravinsky/Leningrad recordings. I like them both, although the style of the Philadelphia Orchestra (this said affectionately) may interpose itself somewhat on the music adding an extra emotive quality. The Mravinsky recording seems much more careful in the details about the music. It’s cooler—more stark like winter.

It’s in the last movement where the two interpretations vary wildly. The Ormandy Finale is 12:49 while the Mravinsky is 11:11. The Leningrad Philharmonic flies in the last movement.

*  *  *

Steinberg opens his discussion of the Symphony No. 5 with this line:

“Even the Tchaikovsky Fifth was once new music, and controversial new music at that.”

This is music written just thirty years after the Civil War. You wonder how accessible it would have sounded right out the gate.

Steinberg includes some thoughts by William Foster Apthorp who was paid both by the Boston Symphony, where he wrote program notes and the Boston Evening Transcript, where he wrote concert reviews.

As a program annotator Apthorp wrote in 1892 for the Fifth’s Boston premier that

“in spite of the prevailing wild savagery of his music, its originality and the genuineness of its fire and sentiment are not to be denied.”

He added,

“The general style of the orchestration is essentially modern, and even ultra-modern.”

In his role as a music critic, though, Apthorp didn’t have much good to report about this new work:

“[The Fifth Symphony] is less untamed in spirit than the composer’s B-flat minor [Piano] concerto, less recklessly harsh in its polyphonic writing, less indicative of the composer’s disposition to swear a theme’s way through a stone wall . . . In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded.”*

Steinberg praises Tchaikovsky for “his wonderful gift of melody, his delight in ‘strong effects’ and his skill at bringing them off, his fire and sentiment—these need neither introduction nor advocacy.” Regarding Tchaikovsky’s abilities in orchestration, he “produces remarkable effect with remarkable economy. His orchestra is anything other than extravagant, but the power and vividness of its fortissimo is amazing.”

The waltz has a melancholy feel. You’re tempted to read into this—“Oh, Tchaikovsky was melancholy, therefore he wrote melancholy music.” The liner notes for the Ormandy/Philadelphia recording (by Annette Kreutziger-Herr, translated by Diana Loos) include these thoughts on composing, written by Tchaikovsky:

“At the moment of creation absolute inner peace is essential for the artist. In this sense artistic creation, even musical creation, is always objective. […] Joyful as well as sad feelings and experiences find their expression, so to speak, in retrospect. Without having any particular reason for feeling joyful, I am capable of letting myself be imbued with a mood of joyful creation and, vice versa, of bringing forth a work, in the midst of a happy atmosphere, which is permeated with the gloomiest and most hopeless feelings.”

I think this is something that Gustav Mahler would have identified with. His darkest symphony, No. 6, was written during the happiest time of his life.

*  *  *

One of the themes in the larger story of the symphony is the growth of a national identity in music—music that is tied to a certain place. Haydn and Mozart wrote “London” symphonies and a “Paris” symphony respectively, but whatever the name, the music still sounded like the music they had written in Central Europe. With Tchaikovsky, you have music that sounds (at least to a Western ear) like Russian music.

The only question is do you want to play with it with American sensibilities, German precision, or Russian starkness. I have room for all three approaches.




*From Boston Evening Transcript, 23 October 1893, quoted by Michael Steinberg in The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).