Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Gatti) – ‘Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5, Romeo and Juliet Overture’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

This is a review of what comes very close to being the first recording ever made of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No.5’. Anyone who is familiar with classical recordings will think I’ve gone stark raving mad, since there have been countless recordings of the work in the last century, but hear me out: If a piece of music over the years gradually grows into something other than what the composer originally had in mind, that’s fine. That’s how art remains pertinent to later generations. But what if a piece of music has never, or at least not in documented memory, been performed as the composer meant it to be? In that situation, can it really be said that we’ve ever heard that piece at all? We’re hearing someone else’s concept, and we may love it, but don’t we at least owe it to the genius of the composer to listen at least once to what was actually written?

Such is the case with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fifth’. Italian conductor Daniele Gatti has thrown down the gauntlet in this recent Harmonia Mundi release, stating an intention to go back to the score and perform what Tchaikovsky actually wrote. Comparing Gatti’s recording to the published score (Breitkopf and Hдrtel ed., reprinted by Dover) demonstrates that 1) This is the first recording which comes close to the tempo rates the composer specified, and 2) It still misses the target in a couple of places. But the scary news is that comparing all the famous recordings of this work to the metronome marks in the score proves that most conductors are either sheep or egomaniacs. The egomaniacs set up an exaggerated performance tradition, and then the sheep blindly follow it, never bothering to at least attempt to perform what Tchaikovsky wrote. Other composers’ works have been “rediscovered” by the study of metronome marks and historical sources, and it is clearly time for some honest work to be done on Tchaikovsky. Daniele Gatti is to be commended for making a bold attempt to meet Tchaikovsky head-on. No one else has even bothered to try. Abbado? Not hardly. Szell? Nope. Jansons? Not quite. Mravinsky? Not even in the ballpark. Celibidache? Not even on the same planet.

To clarify the tempo distortions that were becoming apparent as I studied the score for this review, I decided to become the ultimate critical “ьbernerd” by listening to numerous recordings, noting their metronome marks, and plotting it all on a chart [click to view chart in a pop-up window].

The dark blue line represents the metronome markings in the published score, with only one being estimated. I examined five places in the first movement: 1) The opening ‘Andante’ [‘Flowing’]; 2) The main theme, marked ‘Allegro con anima’ [‘Fast with animation’]; 3) the bridge that follows, marked ‘Un pochettino piщ mosso’ [‘A little more movement’]; 4) the second theme, marked ‘Molto piщ tranquillo’ [‘Much more tranquil’]; and 5) the coda of the movement. I took the starting tempo from each of the middle movements, 6) ‘Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza’ [‘Flowing lyrically, with some license’]; and 7) ‘Valse. Allegro moderato’ [‘Waltz. Moderately fast’]. I considered four places in the finale: 8) The introduction, marked ‘Andante maestoso’ [‘Majestically flowing’]; 9) The main theme, marked ‘Allegro vivace’ [‘Fast and lively’]; 10) The ‘Presto’ in the coda [‘Very quick’]; and 11) The fanfares in the trumpets and horns just before the end, marked in Tchaikovsky’s score ‘Molto meno mosso’ [‘Much less movement’]. Many more points could be found for comparison but these were handy markers along the way. Ten of the eleven are given precise metronome markings in the score, the exception being the ‘Un pochettino piщ mosso’ from the first movement, which I estimated (based on Tchaikovsky’s cautious wording) at only eight beats per minute faster that the main tempo.

The farther from the blue line of Tchaikovsky’s stated intentions, the more exaggerated a performance is. I selected six demonstrative performances: Celibidache, Abbado (his first recording, with the London Symphony), Jansons, Klemperer, Horenstein, and Mravinsky. I noted the metronome marks for several other recordings (Szell, Rostropovich, Abbado/Chicago Symphony, Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic, Stokowski/London Symphony, Boult, and even a rare radio check of Bruno Walter from 1939), but I limited the chart to a few distinctive ones in order to keep it legible. Abbado’s performance here represents the basic mainstream approach. Mravinsky and, to a lesser degree, Jansons, are the “fast track” who tend to run faster than the score indicates. Celibidache stands in as the most extreme representation of the “slow school” which includes Boult, Rostropovich, and Bernstein. Klemperer’s mostly forgotten recording stands on its own, for, true to form, he did not follow the crowd.

The Celibidache recording (with the Munich Philharmonic on EMI) is a typically visionary affair, but it often makes a complete hash of Tchaikovsky’s pacing. Worst of all is how Celibidache moves from the introduction to the first movement (at roughly only 40% of the speed it should be) into the ‘Allegro’ without speeding up at all. He later picks up some speed, but the pace is very distant from what the composer wrote. In the slow movement, Celibidache’s pacing is glacial. Even in the waltz and into the turbulent finale, Celibidache makes a very slow go of it. The one place where he hits Tchaikovsky’s mark is in the final presto, where everyone else goes through the roof on the high end of the scale.

The high-strung Mravinsky is at the opposite end of the spectrum, being one of the fastest renditions on record. Interestingly, though, he’s underpaced for most of the first movement. He starts off promisingly, just below Tchaikovsky’s rate, but then he holds back the initial ‘Allegro’. He speeds way up for the bridge, bringing him again within striking range, but then he puts on the breaks for a conventionally overwrought wallow through the second theme. Unlike many conductors, Mravinsky gets the relationship between the beginning and the end of the movement correct. Although the buildup to the coda emerges from the same bridge passage we hear earlier in the movement, in the coda there is no acceleration, lending extra weight to the closing pages (although they should still be fast). Mravinsky maintains the correct relationship, albeit at a slower pace than the score indicates. Mravinsky is just about on tempo in the slow movement, although his vibrato-heavy horn soloist remains an acquired taste. For the remaining movements, Mravinsky goes further afield. His waltz is reasonably poised, but the pace is rushed. And then there’s the finale. Mravinsky seems more occupied here with showing off how brutally fast he can force his orchestra to play than in capturing anything of the composer’s vision. It is high-adrenaline stuff, but it sure ain’t Tchaikovsky.

The highly regarded Jansons/Oslo Philharmonic recording on Chandos is often cited as the finest recording of this work, and in many ways it is. But it is very much in the mold of his mentor, Mravinsky, and although Jansons is slightly less extreme, he duplicates Mravinsky’s concept: Exaggerated slowing for second theme of the first movement, overall under tempo in the first movement, and wildly over-fast in the finale. In the end, it is a masterful performance of Mravinsky’s concept, which isn’t exactly Tchaikovsky’s.

The chart line for Abbado is taken from his first recording of the work, for Deutsche Grammophon with the London Symphony in the late 1970’s. His later recordings tend to become ever more exaggerated in tempo. The Berlin Philharmonic recording on Sony is the most refined, arguably too much so. My favorite is the mid-1980’s recording with the Chicago Symphony on CBS which, although a bit rough around the edges, is Abbado’s most direct, heart-felt performance. Especially noteworthy in that recording is the flexible, ardent slow movement (starting very close to the composer’s metronome marking). Chicago Symphony principal hornist Dale Clevenger and Abbado work hand in hand to give an incredibly emotional approach to the movement, with pacing changing from beat to beat within the bar. Too bad the rest of the performance misses the composer’s tempo targets in too many other places.

I retain a special fondness for Jascha Horenstein’s New Philharmonia recording, originally made for Reader’s Digest in the 1960’s, later reissued by Quintessence on LP in the late 1970’s and by Chesky on CD in the 1980’s. The first movement is badly under tempo, and the second at least begins that way, but some of the later tempos hit closer to the mark. One of the most refreshing things about the performance is Horenstein’s refusal to “milk it” for easy thrills. Thus it keeps a certain dignity, which is something that can’t be said for many other versions.

There was one conductor in the history of this work who came close to getting the tempo relationships correct: Otto Klemperer. He recorded the work for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1966. He correctly reflects the relationship from one pace to the next throughout the first few tempos of the opening movement, increasing the pace slightly for the bridge, then decreasing only slightly for the second theme, instead of bringing things to a near-halt, as is now customary. As the first movement gathers steam, though, Klemperer overshoots the tempo going into the coda (at least in relation to his earlier tempo), perhaps an indication of the kind of fire he might have brought to this piece in earlier years. But even if Klemperer gets the basic relationship of the first four tempos correct, his overall pace is too slow. Better is the finale, where Klemperer comes closer than anyone else to nailing Tchaikovsky’s pacing. He’s a little slower in the final fanfares, but those remain the most difficult thing to pull off in performance.

What most conductors do at the end of the finale is to take the ‘Presto’ so fast that they can just cut the tempo in half for the fanfares. But Tchaikovsky’s metronome mark changes from half note equals 144 to dotted half note equals 96. On the surface, this looks like an almost impossible task, calling for the conductor to apparently pull a new, unrelated tempo out of thin air for the closing bars. But again, how many conductors have actually tried to comprehend what the composer was after? Students of the music of modern American composer Elliot Carter would figure it out pretty quickly, for it was he who strongly advanced the idea of tempo relationships based on note values instead of bar lines. In other words, say a passage is moving along in 2/4 time. Then it goes into a new section in 3/2 time, but the quarter-note values keep moving at exactly the same rate. The bar lines, however, are now coming less frequently, so it seems like the music has slowed down, without ever losing any pace or energy. This technique became known as “metrical modulation” in the twentieth century, but I think that is exactly what Tchaikovsky was up to at the end of his ‘Fifth Symphony’. The metronome markings for the ‘Presto’ and the subsequent fanfares seem unrelated at first glance. But if you divide the half notes of the ‘Presto’ into its component quarter notes, then realize that the fanfares are in 6/4 time, it becomes evident what the composer was after: The pace of the quarter notes remains the same from the ‘Presto’ into the fanfares. Tchaikovsky couldn’t express this by a quarter note metronome value, because metronomes do not go up to the figure it would need to be, which is quarter note equals 288 beats per minute (or at least they didn’t then; there’s probably a modern digital metronome out there now which goes up to 300 beats per minute or more). Thus instead of random exaggeration, we have a clever, subtle tie-in that makes sense structurally. Among the older recordings, not a single conductor gets this relationship correct. Horenstein comes closest initially, but then he accelerates the fanfares until the dotted half note is equal to the previous half note of the ‘Presto’. Klemperer slows the fanfares too much, but he’s at least in the neighborhood of what the score says.

So how does Gatti fare overall? As the chart shows, he hews very close to Tchaikovsky’s initial tempo markings, and that moves his interpretation into a whole new world. Instead of sounding epic or melancholy, the first movement becomes lithe and incisive. Gatti wisely matches textures with tempo, making this a more poised and deft reading than is the norm. That also translates into considerable adrenaline by the Royal Philharmonic players, who sound intrigued and inspired by the music’s new found freshness. Unfortunately, the pace – and the inspiration – sag a bit when Gatti slams on the brakes for a surprisingly conventional slowdown in the second theme. This, alas, is the traditional distortion that the work has been subjected to time and time again. Unless someone has access to a different score out there that justifies this reduction in speed, everything I am seeing in the score leads me to conclude that it is simply wrong. The other place where Gatti strays from the score is in returning to the fast bridge tempo for the coda, which is nonetheless quite an exciting pace for it. Despite those variances, Gatti effectively recasts the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fifth’ in a new light, relating the piece more to the composer’s first three symphonies and his ballet scores.

In the ‘Andante’ second movement, Gatti starts at a dangerously slow tempo, and it took me a while to feel engaged to the music in such a rarified atmosphere. Gatti’s horn soloist, Martin Owen, starts with a wonderfully veiled sound, which gradually opens up as the music unfolds. The concentration level remains high, albeit not as riveting as in the first movement. The ultimate performance of this movement remains Abbado’s Chicago outing. There, horn soloist Dale Clevenger doesn’t play as much with texture as Owen does. Instead, there is a close symbiosis between soloist and conductor as they speed up and slow down within each bar, playing with the freedom of tempo that Tchaikovsky allowed in his tempo marking “Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza”. That license is not exercised as much in Gatti’s recording, thus it never attains the heights of personal drama which Abbado reached in the Chicago performance. Abbado and Clevenger bring the movement to life as a very personal affair, unlike any other performance, and that alone makes Abbado’s Chicago recording indispensable. Though the single disc is not currently in Sony’s catalogue, the recording is available as part of a generally fine cycle in an affordably-priced box set.

As the most emotionally ambivalent movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fifth’, the third movement waltz is elusive by design, but Gatti catches the undercurrents without underlining them. He achieves this by using an understated elegance which allows for the shadows of doubt to register beneath the surface sparkle. The dance unfurls gracefully, with a quicksilver lightness in the scherzando sections, and a gentle regret in the passing shadows. Gatti does seem a touch anxious, though, to get to the finale, rushing the final chords of the waltz.

Gatti is a little expansive in the opening to the finale, then turns things up a notch faster than the score calls for in the main theme. Nonetheless, he takes note of many of the finer details along the way and generates considerable momentum, even though his emphasis is more on joyous shaping of the carnival-like atmosphere than making it a new battle. In Gatti’s concept, the battle is over and the finale is for rejoicing, as opposed to Abbado, who makes the finale another battleground. One nice touch which seems original with Gatti is the slight slowing down of the clarinet theme before the quiet interruption in the middle of the movement. This gets the energy under control and makes the sudden oasis sound a little less arbitrary. Gatti’s finale reminded me to some degree of the fresh manner of Pierre Monteux’s classic Boston Symphony record for RCA in the late 1950’s, albeit with fewer wayward tempo distortions. One felicitous detail I always look for: In the coda, just before the final presto, the two big chords in the brass are marked with sforzandos, meaning that the players are supposed to hit the chords loudly then immediately back off. Abbado was the first conductor I ever heard who noticed this fine point, and now he is joined by Gatti. After hearing it done correctly, other versions sound crude, allowing blaring brass to cover up the rising surge of notes in the strings, instead of holding back with suppressed excitement. Once again, the composer knew what he was doing, and conductors who ignore it make themselves look rather gauche.

As the chart shows, Gatti overshoots the final ‘Presto’ and the subsequent fanfares, but he correctly comprehends the tempo relationship (equal quarter notes between the two tempos), and nails it. Gatti shows a firm controlling hand, too, in slowing the final chords, which is fine by me. Frankly, I’ve heard so many up tempo, inflexible sprints through the coda of the work that I’ve grown sick of them. I must confess here a special fondness for those conductors who grandstand a little in the coda, even if the score doesn’t call for it. English conductor Sir Adrian Boult made a recording of the work in the late 1950’s with the London Philharmonic which slows the final trumpet and horn calls down to what he probably saw as a larger-than-life visionary tempo. Listened to almost fifty years later, it sounds campy and wildly over-the-top. (How often does one hear that phrase associated with the oh-so-reserved Sir Adrian Boult?!) But, then again, one could certainly make the argument that high camp is hardly out of place in Tchaikovsky. Whatever the case, it jolts the closing pages out of routine and into something grand. My other favorite distortion of those fanfares is in the Horenstein recording, discussed above. And for mischief, there’s always the Stokowski/London Symphony recording on Decca from the 1960’s, where the conductor tweaks the final fanfares by adding in some slurs in the phrasing which make it sound outrageously sassy.

In the end, what is most important about this recording is that Gatti refreshingly discards most of the encrustations of tradition to give us a performance that is poised, flexible, light on its feet. This shouldn’t be taken to mean it doesn’t hit with great force, though. If anything, Gatti’s approach seems more forceful just because the peaks stand out more vividly than usual. And those peaks are quite visceral, especially in the first movement. It is also worth pointing out that a big part of what is so refreshing about Gatti’s approach is that there is a real concentration on the emotional impact of this music, instead of the silky-smooth orchestral texture fetish that is becoming all too common among conductors of major orchestras these days. A perfect example comes in the multiple recordings by Abbado. The one which, ostensibly, should have been his best was the one with the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra he very much recreated in his own fashion in order to banish memories of Karajan’s style. But that very intensive reworking of the sound seems to detract. Though often powerful, the Abbado/Berlin rendition is too gleaming, too refined, too caught up in the modern fetish for virtuoso sheen. Perhaps this is the reason that—until recent years—Abbado’s finest recordings were those that he made as guest conductor of Sir Georg Solti’s powerhouse Chicago Symphony in the early eighties. Abbado was able to temper the strong-arm tendencies of that orchestra, thus leading to more graceful playing than was customary from that source. But since he was only the guest conductor, he couldn’t relentlessly buff away the orchestra’s sound as he later did with the Berlin Philharmonic, leading to a number of over-refined, enervated recordings. I should point out, though, that after his life-threatening illness in the late nineties, Abbado underwent a major shift in priorities that has seen a great deal of life-blood return to his recent recordings.

Gatti’s focus on the musical substance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fifth’ is joined with an effective recording from Harmonia Mundi. I wouldn’t say that this is the finest recorded sound possible in high-resolution either format, but it is the finest sound I’ve heard in any recording made in the acoustically tricky Abbey Road Studio No.1 in London. That studio has a tendency to boost the midrange, muddying textures, and there is some cloudiness here in that area, but the overall sonic picture is helped by Gatti’s artistic decision not to supersaturate the orchestral textures. DSD recording engineer Brad Michel has skillfully deployed his microphones to give a spacious, attractive sound without losing too much ground to the hall’s boominess. Especially delightful are the full, colorful brass instruments which cut through cleanly in big climaxes without sounding harsh or forced, especially the trombones and tuba, whose sounds remain clear even on the deep end of the scale. The surround channels open up the sound quite well, although as anyone familiar with the sound of this studio will be unsurprised to hear, the reverberation has a touch of the hard bounce of concrete walls, as opposed to the mellow wood and plaster reverb of the finest concert halls.

The orchestral image is spread across the front right, center, and left channels reasonably broadly in the symphony, but that does bring us to the issue of the disc filler, an earlier recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture’. The recording of the symphony is a Harmonia Mundi production from 2003, but the disc is fleshed out by the inclusion of a 1998 recording of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by the same forces, originally made by Conifer. Conifer had a contract with Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic at that point, and they made a handful of fine recordings together before Conifer was folded into BMG. BMG was, like so many other large corporate concerns, going through a meltdown at the time, and they appeared to be exiting the classical music business entirely when they cancelled all their new classical recording contracts a few years back. They have since absorbed Sony and begun to reorganize their classical divisions, but instead of releasing this leftover tidbit from Gatti and company, they licensed it to Harmonia Mundi for this issue. The problem is that discounting film scores, modern multichannel music recording was in its infancy in 1998, and the recording features a typical problem of several early surround-sound productions: The front stereo separation is insufficient, with the majority of the sound being sucked into the center channel. On the plus side is the fact that the 1998 recording is from the Watford Colosseum, which is a warmer sonic space than Abbey Road Studio No.1. Unfortunately, the Conifer recording never effectively captures the venue’s spaciousness. The reverberation of the hall remains in front of us, while very little makes it to the surround channels. In terms of performance, though, Gatti’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the finest to have come down the pike since Carlo Maria Giulini’s intense, passionate reading for EMI in the 1960’s.

In the symphony, the surround channels are not used to excess in the multichannel Super Audio CD layer, but their presence is certainly missed when moving to the stereo SACD layer of this hybrid disc. The multichannel program definitely increases the sense of “involvement” with the music. The stereo layer keeps much of the rich instrumental colors, but loses that sense of involvement. The regular CD layer further loses the depth of color and three-dimensionality that the SACD version of this DSD recording provides plentifully.

In the end, are tempos the only story in this piece of music? Of course not. But what is so important here is that Daniele Gatti has considered them anew and made them part of his deft, lively vision of the work. Not only is this the finest new Tchaikovsky ‘Fifth’ in almost twenty years, it gracefully nabs a spot among the finest recordings ever made of the piece. Keep an ear out for Gatti. He’s the real thing.