Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4,5 & 6/Wiener Philharmoniker Conducted by Herbert von Karajan/Esoteric reissue

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Symphony’s 4, 5, and 6, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, written in Russia between 1877 and 1893, are not only the composer’s crowning achievements, but have been orchestral war horses for the last hundred years.  Almost every major conductor has recorded these works at least once. In the case of esteemed Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert Von Karajan, he recorded the set at least three times (possibly more with the inclusion of his mono catalogue), with many more individual recordings along the way. Two were recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic under EMI and Deutsche Grammophon in the 1960s and 70s respectively. The final set was again recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1985, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic, another orchestra Karajan had a long and illustrious relationship with. This final set, recorded digitally just four years before the maestro’s death in 1989, was originally issued on both LP and CD, and now Japanese SACD manufacturer Esoteric have decided to revisit this recording from Karajan’s twilight years.

Music

The writings on Tchaikovsky as a composer, and also as a person could, and have filled many completely contradictory books. By his Fourth Symphony, he had reached his mature form as a composer. This was his most gripping and dramatic work yet, the horns open the first movement with a motif representing “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness” according to the composer himself, an apt choice given the context in which it was composed.

This work was written in the aftermath of Tchaikovsky’s ill fated and short lived marriage, which was a sham to hide from rumors of his closeted homosexuality, and identity that he would eventually come to terms with. The final movement however, is one of the most joyous fanfares ever written.  Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth is a story of triumph over fate.

The Fifth Symphony is more slow and brooding, a reflective and introspective work.  The composer sketched a brief program description labeling it as “complete resignation before fate”. Historians speculate that this symphony was an attempt by Tchaikovsky to revitalize his artistry after the Fourth Symphony and Manfred Symphony had pigeonholed him into a certain thematic aesthetic. Certainly, the Fifth is less programmatic than the Fourth, with the middle movements displaying qualities of pastoral and absolute music that would not be out of place in the compositions of Brahms.

The Sixth is perhaps the composer’s most infamous work, one which has caused a great deal of scholarly confusion. Tchaikovsky wrote and premiered the piece in the months and weeks before his death from Cholera in 1893. He left no program for the work, only titling it Pateticheskaya, which was translated into French as “Pathetique”, this is the titled used in most editions today. Scholarship now agrees that the intent in this title at the time had more to do with a theme of passion, than of despair, a meaning similar to the use of Appassionata by Beethoven. This slight misunderstanding was compounded by a 20th century scholarly obsession with Tchaikovsky’s gay identity, yielding to wildly spread conspiracy theories surrounding his death. The most popular misperception is that the composer wrote his Sixth Symphony as a musical suicide note, a sorrowful goodbye. Despite this popular misconception, there is no evidence Tchaikovsky died of suicide, or any evidence that he was unusually depressed, or fatalistic in his final months. Further, he was excited and optimistic about what he considered his finest symphonic work.

All of the composer’s stylistic strengths show full color in this work, from frantic climaxes, to the most haunting and beautiful melodies.  The real twist is the heroic march in the 3rd movement, that gives way to a mournful and lethargic finale in the 4th.  It is almost tradition at this point for the audience to clap at the conclusion of the 3rd movement, mistakenly thinking the piece to be over.

The performance in these recordings is very interesting, and even a departure from Karajan’s previous interpretations. The playing from the Vienna Philharmonic here is technically very fine, technically everything is to the notoriously high standard the orchestra is known for. Stylistically, the playing is a bit unusual for Tchaikovsky.  Karajan takes overall slow tempi, and there is a distinct lack of movement and direction in the melodic lines.  Fortissimo climaxes are loud and direct as they should be, but there is an overall lack of dramatic rise and fall that makes Tchaikovsky’s writing so gripping.  This was as much a problem in his previous Berlin Philharmonic recordings, but it is definitely a noticeable detriment here. Often times, lines, especially in the strings, go nowhere, fading in and out with that mellow sheen that the conductor is known to favour.  How much of this is performance, and how much is the recording techniques, I do not know, but “dull” is a word I can faithfully use to describe much of these performances, especially in the Fifth Symphony, which I think is the most disappointing of the set.  Particularly in the opening of the first movement, the haunting clarinet opening followed by more winds, lacks the dynamic direction that give it emotional weight.

The Fourth Symphony is definitely the best in the bunch here, perhaps because it can stand up to the rather straight ahead reading Karajan gives it. Tempi are still too slow for my liking, and often there is again a lack of direction, specifically in the first movement, but the finale retains triumphant brilliance and makes up for the previous lack of dynamism with some excellent brass playing.  The problem I have with these performances overall, is that I don’t really know what they are trying to say. There is a common school of Tchaikovsky performance, exemplified by the performances of the three M’s (Mravinsky, Monteux, and Markevitch) that utilizes rather brisk tempos with a forward drive that does not over romanticize already romantic music, and then there’s the approach by conductors like Bernstein that seek to squeeze every ounce of passion out of every phrase with liberal rubato. I find these performances to be somewhere in the middle, with lugubrious tempi and direction, while being rather conservative musically.  Add to that the natural mellow and dark sound Karajan demanded out of his recordings, and my humble opinion is that these are rather dull renditions of what should be passionate and gripping works.  I rather enjoyed the performance of the Fourth Symphony here, but the Fifth and Sixth left a lot to be desired.

Sound

This recent reissue project by Esoteric, is admittedly a little out of left field. Of the many recordings receiving the audiophile treatment in recent years, one does not hear much about recordings (especially digital) from the 1980s. Listening to a few, one does not have to wonder why. The early digital technology labels were using in the 1980s yielded somewhat unpleasing results to my ears, with recordings that sound rather glassy, with dull strings and somewhat boxy and unrealistic sounding wind instruments.  Sure, the dynamics could be stellar thanks to the CD and its lack of potential for tracking errors, but phrasing and texture were sacrificed, at least in the early days. I do not have an original CD or LP of this recording to compare this SACD release to, but I do have a few 80s digital Deutsche Grammophon LPs, and if those are anything to compare, Esoteric has certainly worked wonders with the engineering.

According to their own liner notes, this set was mastered at 96/24bit from an original digital master that was done at Redbook 44/16bit.  Getting a good sounding recording on a DSD format out of such a low resolution master is certainly a daunting task.

So, how does this set sound?  Well, pretty dark, which is no surprise coming from a Karajan recording, that was his usual standard, especially in his later years. The dynamics are pretty impressive, with the climaxes and percussion hits sounding rather earth-shaking. The problem I run into, is that for some reason the loud sections sound rather boomy and lacking in definition. For instance, whenever the percussion are prominent, the boomyness takes over the soundstage and blurs out any definition in the brass, or orchestra as a whole, you no longer hear instruments, but instead you here “loud”.  Also the strings lack the texture here that make them sound like real vibrating instruments in a hall.  Particularly, the starts of notes or phrases kind of “fade” in rather than beginning. Finally, in the big sections, the winds sound rather hard, there is a real digital graininess or sibilance that makes the sound rather fatiguing to listen to at concert volume.

All of these problems, I doubt are the fault of Esoteric. It is a label that has consistently put care into its masterings, and this is certainly the best 80s digital recording I have ever heard from Deutsche Grammophon. That being said, I don’t think this recording can escape from the limitations of its birth, which is a harsh early digital sound, mixed with a lack of realistic instrument timbre, particularly noticeable in the string and woodwind sounds. How far can one take such a limited original product?  I think this might be the answer to that question.

Final Thoughts

Recordings of such important music entities as the Vienna Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan are always going to be of importance, and this set is no exception.  It highlights a conductor in the twilight of his career with repertoire he was acutely familiar with, and had recorded many, many times.  For that reason, a set like this is of some importance, and Esoteric have produced what I surmise to be the definitive issue of such recording. I have no doubt in my mind that if one wants to here these performances, this is the way to go. The only thing is that I think Karajan’s earlier cycles with Berlin are more commanding performances that benefit from better recording techniques. 

For readers of Audiophilia looking to acquire a Tchaikovsky set in audiophile sound, I think there are some better options available. DG has reissues a wonderful AAA vinyl set of 4,5, and 6 with Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic that would be an excellent start to anyone seeking a go-to copy of these works. There is also the set Pierre Monteux put out with the Boston Symphony on RCA in the 60s that has perhaps the best sound quality of them all, available on the original Living Stereo vinyl, the classic records reissues from last decade, or on SACD from a few years ago. Not as firey as the Leningrad set, Monteux nevertheless gives a gripping interpretation. For Karajan devotees, I think the mid 70s set from DG with the Berlin Philharmonic, available cheaply on the original vinyl, is his best rendition, and escapes most of the problems I heard in these later recordings. If you want to have Karajan’s interpretation of these works, I think that set is the better option. If you must have these particular performances, Esoteric have presented what is most likely their definitive edition.