Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky

There are several reasons why I don’t like Tchaikovsky. The first one is a bit silly and absolutely not his fault, but his Russian name Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский has been transcribed into several different European languages in a different spelling, so trying to search for him in any kind of database or streaming service is an absolute nightmare.

The second reasons is that in general, Tchaikovsky is either “too much” in the sense that 1 pancake in the morning makes you want more, 4 and you already feel a bit stuffed, and 9 as I’ve been served in some US hotels just makes you want to run away. This is the occasional Tchaikovsky, let’s take his unfortunately totally overplayed piano concerto for example. Just can’t hear that thing any more. Even the Violin Concerto, that i kind of like, has some moments where less would be more.

I’ve tried all Tchaikovsky symphonies several times, and none of them speak to me in any way (the one exception will be mentioned below). To be fair, I haven’t really tried his operas yet, I’m still a bit hesitant when I don’t understand a word of what is being sung in an opera, makes the enjoyment harder.

There are exceptions within his oeuvre that I like, I on (rare) occasions listen to his ballets, which have some magical melodies, the first movement of the string serenade is kitsch, but beautiful, and obviously his Violin Concerto played by Jascha Heifetz (or Julia Fischer) is kind of special.

By the way, I strongly recommend you read a biography about Tchaikovky’s life, he surely didn’t have an easy one. Closet homosexual (one suspects), suffering from regular depression, died of Cholera (could have been a suicide), etc. etc. Your regular soap opera doesn’t get as dramatic as that. (EDIT: please check out the responses to this thread, it seems like some of this is inaccurate according to latest research).

Symphony No. 5 e-minor

So what is different about symphony no. 5? I don’t know really, it is really the overall character of this symphony in the dramatic and sad key of e-minor.

It basically starts out as kind of funeral march, and somehow is linked mentally to Beethoven’s 5th (I suppose no composer could ever write a fifth symphony without thinking of the famous “original”, and you hear influences e.g. in Mahler’s 5th as well. Some speculate even there’s a reason why Brahms stopped at 4). I also plays around with th notion of fate, a familiar motive within the symphony

There is something weird about the ending. Tchaikovsky himself considered it failed. I don’t care at all, this symphony really draws me in, and keeps my attention until the end. Tons of emotions again, but unlike after 9 pancakes, you don’t feel stuffed (exhausted maybe instead)

Neeme Järvi

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 Neeme Järvi Gothenburg Symphony

Estonia is a weird place. 1.3m in habitants, but it is the birthplace of an entire outstanding family of excellent conductors, with Neeme, Kristjan, and Paavo, and also the home of Arvo Pärt, one of the most important contemporary composers.

I’m a big fan of most of Paavo’s playing, especially his recordings with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. More about that later. But this is about his dad, Neeme. While Neeme never had any formal ties with any of the grand old orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, or New York, his work with smaller ensembles like the Gothenburg Symphony or the Royal Scottish National Orchestra contain many hidden gems.

This recording is one of them. Very well recorded  (the Swedish label BIS is usually excellent at this), the smaller Gothenburg Orchestra and Järvi’s conducting give it a nice transparency, but still you get the full dose of emotions. Tradition says that Russian symphonies are best played by Russian conductors and orchestras, and while there are good examples for this (e.g. Mravinsky), these two neighbouring countries (Estonia and Sweden) do just fine for my ears.

Overall rating: 5 stars (meaning I don’t think you could play the symphony any better than this. Not meaning these 5 stars mean as much to me as e.g. Bach’s b-minor mass)

Side note: You can download it here from BIS’ own download shop, E-classical. What I really like about this shop that you are not obliged to buy entire albums, you can just buy individual tracks, and this is exactly what I did, I only went for the symphony, so cannot really comment on the two other works that were bundled on this album.

16 thoughts on “Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky

  1. Pingback: Album of the Evening - Page 360

  2. Balancement

    As I said in my Twitter response, you really don’t know enough about Tchaikovsky or his music to be an informed critic. His life was *not* a soap opera, he was not as closeted as legend has it, he did not commit suicide, and he did not suffer from life-long massive depression (these stories need to be relegated to the dust-bin of history where they belong).

    You may personally dislike his music–that is a matter of differing taste and opinion and you are welcome to those of course–but it would behoove you to do some research and learn about his importance in the history and development not only of ballet music, but in the symphonic form as well. (See Tom Service, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/jan/28/symphony-guide-tchaikovsky-first-tom-service and http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/aug/26/symphony-guide-tchaikovsky-sixth-pathetique-tom-service).

    If you haven’t listened to his operas, you are missing some glorious music and that’s your loss; and when it comes to his “unfortunately totally overplayed piano concerto,” you have not been hearing it as Tchaikovsky intended it to be performed (see The New York Review of Books, “The Real Tchaikovsky” here: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/gallery/2015/mar/09/real-tchaikovsky/).

    If you should genuinely want to learn more about Tchaikovsky, his music, and his life, a good place to start is with the Tchaikovsky Research website: http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Main_Page

    And if you would like some modern critical insight into Tchaikovsky’s life and music, I would suggest the following books:
    Tchaikovsky (Master Musician Series), Ronald John Wiley, Oxford University Press
    Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, Alexander Poznansky, Schirmer Books
    Tchaikovsky’s Last Days: A Documentary Study: Alexander Poznansky, Oxford University Press
    Tchaikovsky and His World, Leslie Kearney, Ed., Princeton University Press
    and finally, The Tchaikovsky Handbook (2 Volumes), Compiled by Alexander Poznansky & Brett Langston, Indiana University Press

    Your pancake-comparing cavalier dismissal of Tchaikovsky’s music is genuinely unfair to one of the world’s greatest composers. He deserves better treatment from someone who would set himself up as a music critic. I hope you will avail yourself of some of the modern scholarship on Tchaikovsky’s life and music and treat him with greater respect in the future…

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    1. Musicophile Post author

      @balancement: Let me start off by agreeing that indeed I’m far from being a Tchaikovky expert, and I’ve never claimed otherwise. Tchaikovsky is one of the few composers about whom I haven’t read a major biography yet.

      The “soap opera” quote was however not in any sense meant to put a negative light on the person of Tchaikovsky. On the contrary, I wanted to attract some interest to the man behind the music, Summarizing a mix of unconfirmed rumors in one sentence certainly wasn’t a musicological exercise, I just wanted to flag to my readers that as with every great artist, there always is a background story worth checking out.

      Now to my “dismissal” of Tchaikovsky’s music:

      I really want to make clear that my blog posts are in no way meant to be an objective judgment on the quality of music. As I’ve declared in my page on how i rate: musicophilesblog.com/what-good-looks-like-how-do-i-rate/, this blog is a purely SUBJECTIVE exercise, and all I’m saying is my purely subjective perception.

      In that sense, I don’t intend to be a “music critic”, because that would require some form of objectivity I cannot provide, I’m just sharing my very personal opinion on music.

      However, I personally think I need to be very clear about what I like but also about what I don’t like, everybody reading this blog can then make up their mind if they agree or disagree with my opinion. And let’s make it clear: I love a good argument about music, if well done, it can only be enriching.

      To summarize, Tchaikovksy is a major composer, and just because he doesn’t meet my personal taste with a big part of his work, doesn’t diminish this in any way! And actually his symphony no. 5 is one of the most often played symphonies in my library. And I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to Onegin and Pique Dame, I just want to spend more time with Cosi Fan Tutte and Orlando before that.

      I very much appreciate you taking the time for all those references, you can be assured I’ll check out all of them as I love always learning more about music!

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  3. Balancement

    The problem lies precisely in the repeating/republishing “of unconfirmed rumors in one sentence.” These are the same old (and thoroughly discredited) canards that are *always* and persistently dragged out in reference to Tchaikovsky.

    Furthermore, your “Tchaikovsky is … ‘too much'” characterization is another one of those ingrained-in-Western-culture criticisms (along with “hysterical,” “bombastic,” “overblown,” “histrionic,” among other pejorative appellations) that are dragged out whenever Tchaikovsky’s music is mentioned among eurocentric critics — only proving that whoever is speaking/writing about his music doesn’t know the first thing about it.

    Forgive me for sounding rude, but those of us who have studied his life and music in depth are becoming beyond weary of seeing this nonsense trotted out over and over and over again! After the gazillionth time of seeing Tchaikovsky and his music carelessly pigeonholed in this manner, it just becomes more than tedious.

    You profess admiration for Cosi Fan Tutte; are you aware that Tchaikovsky idolized Mozart and that his operas musically reflect that love in many, many ways? If you do indeed take the time to visit any of the references I provided above, you will find a composer of the genius rank, adventurous, original, innovative, and ground-breaking, and more than worthy of serious attention and study (not to mention the added bonus of discovering music that is not only resplendent, but transcendent as well).

    Finally, I do hope that if you choose to read at least one biography, you will read Roland John Wiley’s masterful book on Tchaikovsky’s life and music from Oxford referenced above, and that you will listen to and explore Tchaikovsky’s vast oeuvre with more attentive ears. You will find it worth the effort.

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  4. pdvm

    Tchaikovsky’s 6th is a much more of a masterpiece in my book than his 5th (which in fact could be criticized for being ‘overblown’ and ‘hysterical’. There is still a lot of hysteria in his 6th symphony, but used more sparsely (and thus, to greater effect). All in all I feel that Tchaikovsky, in his 6th symphony, for maybe the first time could use the maximum of his orchestral pyrotechnics to tell a sincere and concise musical story. I can warmly recommend listening to Gergiev, Mavrinsky or Karajan (both the 1976 or 1985 recording – the autumnal 1985 recording being my favourite, despite a bit early digital sound).

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    1. Musicophile Post author

      It is really not for a lack of trying! I have both Karajan and Mavrinsky in my collection, and I still don’t “get” the Pathétique. Just to be safe, I put on the recent Nézet-Séguin recording with the Rotterdam this morning during my ride in the car to the office. Same thing, just can’t help it, most of the time I was thinking, I’d rather listen to something else right now.

      The 5th speaks to me, the 6th doesn’t (same for 1-3, I can occasionally do the 4th).

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    2. Balancement

      Oh, do…let’s trot out “overblown” and “hysterical” just one more time in connection with Tchaikovsky, shall we? After all, those entirely erroneous subjective fallacies haven’t been used nearly enough over the past century.

      Look, if you and @Musicophile don’t like Tchaikovsky, fine, don’t listen to him–but if you’re going to object, publicly, then state reasons that can be musically justified and explained, don’t give me abstract pseudo-psychological fol-de-rol like “hysteria.” Where, which bars or sections of the 5th are a conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms? Where, precisely in the score is there an *uncontrollable* outburst of emotion or fear, characterized by irrationality? You are aware, of course, of the pejorative connotations of “hysteria” and how it’s oh, so, sneakily aligned with “effeminate?” (Though of course, we wouldn’t want to come out and directly say that, now would we? Then we would have to admit our discomfort with the fact that Tchaikovsky was–gasp!–gay.)**

      This is the same old junk connected with Tchaikovsky and his music that has embarrassingly dragged itself out through freudian-influenced music criticism over the 20th century. Alexander Poznansky, probably the leading Tchaikovsky scholar in the world, as well as the musicologist Richard Taruskin (see his article “The Essential Tchaikovsky,” in ‘Russian Life’ Vol. 43, No.4), both have addressed this issue over and over again. It’s been explained in the book ‘Tchaikovsky and His World,’ (Leslie Kearney, et. al., Princeton University Press) and given an entire chapter, “Tchaikovsky and His Music in Anglo-American Criticism,” in the book ‘Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity,’ (Fuller and Whitesell, University of Illinois Press).

      If you don’t like the fact that Tchaikovsky modified the eurocentric (primarily German) sonata form to suit his own ends in his symphonies, fine, that’s a rational response. But in the name of Euterpe and all the Golden Goddesses, leave “hysterical” out of the musical equation.

      ——-
      **Before Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation was widely known, it’s interesting to note that George Bernard Shaw, acting in his music-critic guise as “Corno di Basetto,” praised Tchaikovsky’s symphonies for their “freedom from the frightful effeminacy of most recent works of the romantic school,” and favored him over the “dry pedantry of Brahms and his followers.”

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      1. Musicophile Post author

        For the record, I don’t like the term hysterical and never used it. And whether I like his music or not (And remember there are works of Tchaikovsky I like) is certainly not related to his sexual orientation.

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  5. Balancement

    My response was directed primarily to pdvm above, who indeed used “overblown,” hysterical,” and “hysteria.” And my point was directed at where and how those criticisms arose historically and why they belong in the dustbin of history.

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    1. pdvm

      Wow, wow, slow down. No need for that kind of aggression.

      First: don’t just assume that I don’t like Tchaikovsky: I love his music. His 6th symphony was my favourite piece of music for probably a decade.

      Second: Why would I be uncomfortable with him being gay? I couldn’t give a shit if Pyotr was gay, straight, bi- or asexual. I had a gay uncle and have several gay friends. I live in the Netherlands. We’re cool with that.

      Third: I could point out two or three passages in the second and last movement of the fifth symphony that would certainly classify as ‘hysteric’ in my book. I played the fifth symphony many times as a double bass player in a symphony orchestra, so I would have to find my old parts to give you the bar numbers. But more importantly, I don’t use hysteria in a pejorative way. For me the use of the word ‘hysteria’ in combination with Tchaikovsky’s music had nothing at all to do with him being gay (until you accused me of doing so). On the contrary, I use it in a positive way. I love Tchaikovsky’s use of fast-paced fortississimo orchestral passages that seem to ‘get out of control’, the orchestra almost screaming, for being able to create the feeling of complete mayham with it. Same for the 6th symphony, in the first movement there is a passage in the early part of the development where the trumpets play a eardrum-shattering downward scale above the rest of the orchestra. Hysteric, for sure. And ****ing brilliant!

      Fourth:
      (IMO, YMMV, TINAR, ETC ETC ETC)
      In the fifth symphony he uses this hysteria/mayham-thing the most, and, IMO, in a less efficient way than in his 4th and 6th symphonies. I feel that way because in the 4th and 6th symphonies, I hear at any point in the symphony that Tchaikovsky is going somewhere. In the 5th, there are moments in the first, third and final movements that seem ‘constructed’ to me, where you hear the composer struggle (“how do I get from there to there..?”). Because of that, the big climaxes also feel a bit random here and there. I still love a lot about the 5th symphony (amongst many things: a horn solo to die for!), but I just like the 4th and 6th better. The 4th mainly for being so ‘to the point’, so efficient with it’s thematic material, and the 6th for the intense drama, the higher stakes, the story that Tchaikovsky told with music while withholding the program, and the pitch-black ending.

      Please don’t judge so fast the next time.

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  6. Balancement

    @musicophile and @pdvm, I would like to take this post and the resulting conversation to my own blog to discuss the issues of a “soap-opera life,” “too much,” “stuffed,” “overplayed,” “overblown,” “hysterical,” and “hysteria,” in conjunction with Tchaikovsky’s life and music, and how those issues have reflected on his critical reception now and over the years–something I would not do without the full permission of both of you, of course…

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  7. Pingback: The Nutcracker – or why I sometimes do like Tchaikovsky | musicophilesblog – From Keith Jarrett to Johannes Brahms

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