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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Swan Lake Suite / Lindberg, Arctic Philharmonic

Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 2018   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Mikhail Simonyan
Conductor:  Christian Lindberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5. Swan Lake: Suite Christian Lindberg, cond; Arctic PO BIS 2018 (SACD: 70:48)

I am apparently becoming something of a Tchaikovsky Fifth specialist, having reviewed a recording of the piece in each of the last three issues, and now in a fourth. The orchestra in this recording is a recent creation, having been formed in 2009. It apparently goes by the name Arctic Philharmonic for international consumption. Locally it is known as the Read more Nordnorsk Symfoniorkester (North Norwegian Symphony Orchestra). It is resident in the cities of Bodø and Tromsø, both of which, and especially the latter, are well north of the Arctic Circle. It bills itself as “the world’s northernmost orchestra,” and there is no reason to doubt that claim. Christian Lindberg has been the orchestra’s principal conductor since its inception.

In the notes for this recording, Lindberg writes of his special love for the Tchaikovsky Fifth, the first symphony he ever heard, at age 10, and his favorite symphony ever since. In recording it, he of course enters an extremely crowded field, where competition is intense, and his orchestra, although its playing is spirited and precise, lacks the sumptuous sound of better-known ensembles that have recorded the work. Lindberg’s timing for the first movement (13:10) is one of the shortest in my experience. Of the many recordings in my collection, only those of Daniele Gatti (12:46, on Harmonia Mundi) and Igor Markevitch (12: 30, on Philips) are quicker. In Lindberg’s recording, the introduction initially seemed to me reserved and matter-of-fact, lacking in depth of feeling, but after repeated hearings I sensed that the feeling it conveys is one of resignation, which is not inappropriate. The bassoon soloist is very good, and the orchestra here produces a satisfyingly dark and throaty sound. The exposition starts off at a fast tempo, with a metrical pulse and not much accenting. Gatti, at an even faster pace but with more characterful playing, generates more energy and excitement here, but one must admire the fine wind playing, impressive string discipline, and clear, precise articulation of Lindberg’s orchestra. Climaxes are convincingly built, if not as explosive as in some performances. Lindberg tends to adhere pretty firmly to an established tempo, with minimal deviations, although the tempo relaxes slightly for the second subject and the recapitulation begins at a much more deliberate pace than the exposition before regaining speed. Overall, the movement is short on histrionics but not on feeling.

My initial reaction to the slow movement was to judge it under-characterized, but I grew to appreciate its steadiness and restraint. The playing is generally precise and well articulated, although the solo horn is not always perfectly secure in its lengthy solo. Climaxes are again convincingly built but not overwrought. The Valse third movement is relaxed but effectively phrased and articulated. The opening Andante maestoso section of the Finale is initially understated, but gathers momentum gradually and achieves real majesty in its climax. The subsequent Allegro vivace is steady and not too fast but energetic, with spirited, incisive playing. Overall, this is a well-crafted, tasteful, and effective if somewhat cautious performance, one that takes few risks. It should appeal to those who prefer their Tchaikovsky straightforward and not too emotional, which is certainly a defensible viewpoint, and I must say that I liked this performance more and more with repeated hearings.

The disc is filled out with the standard six-movement suite from Swan Lake . Here I find the performances unequivocally excellent. Lindberg’s firm hand serves him well in the opening movement, depicting the swans crossing the moonlit lake at the beginning of the second act, and his reading soars with an unflagging and seemingly self-propelled momentum that is not matched by either Riccardo Muti, with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI), or Herbert von Karajan, with the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). Lindberg renders the Valse with a grace and naturalness that are not quite equaled by those two more famous conductors. Muti’s performance is undeniably brilliant but more pressured. In the “Pas d’action,” the Norwegian orchestra’s violin soloist, Mikhail Simonyan, plays with simplicity and eloquence, and Lindberg’s direction engenders a sense of serenity and repose that the slightly more agitated Muti rendition does not duplicate.

The SACD stereo sound is bright but not harsh, although lacking the mellow quality I associate with SACD. Nor does it have as much spaciousness and depth in heavily scored passages as one would expect from an SACD. Still, it is noticeably superior to the CD layer in clarity and definition. For some reason, the sound seems more spacious in the Swan Lake Suite. The booklet indicates that the recording was made over a 13-month period from January 2012 through February 2013. This chronological spread might account for differences in sound quality, although it is not specified which items were recorded when. Not possessing a multi-channel system, I cannot comment on the 5.0 surround format offered by this release.

I haven’t heard any other SACD recordings of the Tchaikovsky Fifth. Dmitry Kitaenko’s Oehms release received a rave review from Jerry Dubins in 35:6. My equally enthusiastic reception of this conductor’s “Pathétique” in 35:1 leads me to believe that I would agree with Dubins’s endorsement of his Fifth. I can also recommend Lindberg’s Fifth, with the qualifications noted. My recommendation for the Swan Lake portion of this recording is unreserved.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Christian Lindberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888; Russia 
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Mikhail Simonyan (Violin)
Conductor:  Christian Lindberg
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875-1876; Russia 

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