Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 5.
Tugan Sokhiev, cond; Toulouse Natl O
NAIVE V5252 (51:08)
Every so often a CD comes along with a capacity to delight and infuriate in equal measure. This is one of them. I haven’t heard the National Orchestra of Toulouse in a long time, but I am pleased to report that it is now a fully international-sounding group of 125 players, having been awarded France’s top category of funding and
honor in 1980. Years later, during Michel Plasson’s directorship, the ensemble was still prone to wheeze quaintly in spots, as had many French regional orchestras of old. But the very first notes of this Tchaikovsky performance belie all of that and make one sit up in admiration. This is the refined, quiet, and sonorous playing of an accomplished orchestra––and the dedicated point of view of a conductor with something to say. The clarinet opening is the most beautiful I’ve yet heard; the beginning of the slow movement equally rapt and stunning.
One of the paradoxical crosses borne by the Tchaikovsky Fifth and those who listen to it is the tendency for most performances to be successful––and similar. Almost any orchestra can plough, clump, blast, emote, waltz, and march its way through the piece. Those six verbs might as well be the only indispensable program notes for most concerts.
What makes Tugan Sokhiev’s approach stand out is that none of them apply. (Well, perhaps a waltz or two and a dignified military trot.) Under his direction, this Tchaikovsky symphony might as well be by Brahms. You listen for small points of blend and beauty. Phrases are rounded and carry across the bar lines. Timpani and brasses peek appealingly through the textures as part of a sonority––rather than as aggressive precursors to some Stalinist public address system––and the whole orchestra seems to rise and fall together. Played this way, the symphony can appear a bit smaller. So it needs to rely on tonal beauty and a luminous acoustic.
And there’s the rub. The venue for this recording is the Halle aux Grains in Toulouse. And the recording sounds like something done in the Eastman Theater by Howard Hanson. It is dark and painfully dry. Not tubby in the bass, fortunately, and the balances are superb throughout, but it would have been nice to hear a performance like this float one’s way in a good hall. As it stands, Sokhiev has clearly done wonders with the acoustic he confronts. The Shostakovich overture is zesty and idiomatic. This is a conductor to watch. But one wonders how much of his legato phrasing exists simply to fill the missing air between the notes.
The production values are frustrating in other ways. The timing is short for a CD––and incorrectly listed as two hours and 40 minutes. That would have been Tchaikovsky masquerading as Havergal Brian, not Brahms! We are not told about Tugan Sokhiev’s country of origin in the program notes. (He is Ossetian, for those who care to know. Next door to Georgia.) More importantly, there is a bad splice in the slow movement, where the motto theme comes crashing in for the second time. Most of the first note is missing. In recent years, French production values have fortunately been carried out at a high level, much higher than this. Tugan Sokhiev is beginning an important career and deserves the best a recording company can offer him. Meanwhile, give this a try.
FANFARE: Steven Kruger
Works on This Recording
Festive Overture, Op. 96 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1954; USSR
Symphony no 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra
Written: 1888; Russia
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