TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E minor and Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture – San Francisco Sym./ Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E minor and Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture – San Francisco Sym./ Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media multichannel SACD SFS0062 (5/5/15) 70:58 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) ***1/2:

The release of this disc coincides with the celebration of the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth. The recording, from SFSMedia, is available on a hybrid SACD with conventional CD layer, and as a digital download, including hi-res downloads. For this review, I auditioned the SACD 5.1 version.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been a champion of Russian composers, with some fine recordings of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was recorded September 18-21, 2014 and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture was recorded September 3-6, 2014, both in Davies Symphony Hall at the start of Thomas’ 20th season with the San Francisco Symphony.

The Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 was composed between May and August 1888 and was first performed in St. Petersburg on November 18 of that year with Tchaikovsky conducting. Early reviews were often critical, especially in the U.S., but in general the criticism has abated and it’s now considered one of the composer’s most popular works.

The disc also offers the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The work is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Like other composers, Tchaikovsky was deeply inspired by Shakespeare and wrote works based on The Tempest and Hamlet as well.

Performances of the 5th Symphony generally run about 46 minutes, and looking at the disc timings I saw Thomas clocked in at 50 minutes. I would characterize the performance as stately. It’s never boring or listless, but it is slower than the other performances I’m familiar with. Of course this is a valid interpretation of the piece, but my memory of faster tempos did make the symphony seem a bit slow.

The recording is good, but not a showpiece. In general, I’ve found the new recordings by Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony exemplary. On the 5th Symphony, I find the high frequencies a bit recessed. Strings seem to have lost some of their distinctive sheen, and even cymbals seem a little tonally flattened. This may be a deliberate decision on the part of the recording’s producer, or it may be my expectations of how how this recording should sound differ from what is on offer. Interestingly, the Romeo and Juliet have somewhat better highs, with a purer string sound.

The performances are excellent on both Tchaikovsky pieces. If you don’t mind the slower tempo on the 5th, and the laid-back recording, this disc is a worthwhile purchase.

—Mel Martin

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