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Format: Audio CD
Wow, could Dorati ever whip up a finale! But the final minutes of each of the symphonies are not mere cheap, play-it-as-fast-as-you-can stunts. No, they are climaxes that are well-earned conclusions to two-thirds of an hour of music making characterized by commitment and integrity. The London Symphony provides a virtuosic realization of Dorati's intent--taut, not overly sentimental, but not sterile either. They are performances that have stood the test of time and are justifiably loved by many people, especially those who happen to have grown up with them. In spite of all these wonderful qualities, I cannot say that these performances of Symphonies #5 & 6 are among my favorites. I grew up with the lyricism (some say schmaltz) and lush sound of the Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra performances, which were originally released at about the same time near the beginning of the stereo-LP age (1958-1965). There are also recordings of that same era that are more extraordinary, such as the very Russian and near-manic ones by Mravinsky. Those of more recent vintage generally provide bigger, richer acoustics (take your pick: Maazel, Jansons, Eschenbach, and many others).
The remastering engineers took great care in recreating the original Mercury Living Presence sound, which featured a three-microphone pickup with no equalization nor dynamic compression. For the conversion from analog to digital, they restored the original tape recorders for playback. (None of these recordings used the 35mm film that Mercury famously used around the same time.) There was still some tape hiss, in all the recordings except for Symphonies 1-3, which benefited from the introduction of low-noise tape by the time they were recorded in 1965. The engineers have subtly removed some tape hiss on the rest, leaving a little rather than introducing noticeable artifacts from noise reduction. Of course the CD relieves us from the torture of the ticks, pops, uneven pitch, and inner-groove distortion of vinyl; otherwise, one could swear (s)he was listening to the originals.
I have mixed feelings about the sound, however. It is honest, not cluttered up with lots of different kinds of microphones or excessive reverberation; and one gets a very good sense of the orchestra's existing in a real acoustic space, with robust dynamic range and with no artificial emphasis on individual instruments or monkeying around with a different type of microphone for each choir of the orchestra. All get equal treatment, and in many ways the sound is more realistic than that achieved by the more usual techniques. And yet, the reincarnation of the Mercury sound of the early 1960's may warm one's heart with a sense of nostalgia; but the sound itself is anything but warm--instead, it's rather raw, harsh, and analytical, and a bit pinched, reminding me that the good ole days are best left in the past. Two of the five discs in the set, those containing the Symphonies 1-3, fare a little better as they were recorded with the benefit of the improved technology in 1965. For Romantic repertoire like this I think a more spacious and burnished sound works better.
In Symphony No. 1, the performance seems momentarily to get lost during the fugue in the last movement (beginning at 6:48), wandering aimlessly without energy, only for a half minute--curious. This performance lacks a particular magic I find in Leonard Bernstein's with the New York Philharmonic.
Dorati and the LSO give an excellent performance of Symphony No. 2, but I slightly prefer Lorin Maazel's with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Symphony No. 3 is among the three selections in this set that have better recorded sound, and I don't know of a better performance elsewhere; this for me is the one indispensable item in the set.
I doubt that there is a better performance of Symphony No. 4 in the catalog, but if you like the kind of hair-raising excitement Dorati brings to this symphony, you'll like Mravinsky's even more--downright manic! Mravinsky takes the last movement faster than Dorati from the very start; but by the end they are going at about the same speed; so it depends upon whether you prefer to go on an unrelenting 8-minute thrill ride with Mravinsky, or build up to the heart-racing conclusion only at the end. As good as both these performances are, Lorin Maazel's with the Cleveland Orchestra Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 is just as good (it's a little more sane, but still delivers in the end); and the recorded sound is much, much better--my favorite orchestral demonstration disc. Telarc, like Mercury, experimented with minimalist miking; but by the time of this recording they had added a few spot mikes to add sweetness and color in an ideal combination with clarity and realism.
Dorati's No. 5 is a beautiful and exciting piece of work, worthy of any collection. Yet, there is so much competition: first, there is the extraordinary performance by Mravinsky and the (then) Leningrad Philharmonic, although it suffers just a bit of the same kind of pinched sound characteristic of the 1958-1961 stereo era that it shares with the Dorati. (I refer to the stereo version; there is a monophonic recording of Mravinsky's Tchaikovsky 5 & 6; but the performances are no better than the stereo version.) The Mravinsky recordings on Deutsche Grammophon have more reverberation, a slightly more distant aural perspective, and a bit less realistic soundstage (the first violins, for example, seem to occupy a different space). For me, it's a virtual tossup between the Dorati and Mravinsky; there's slightly more excitement, not to mention Russian-ness in the Mravinsky; but the London Symphony is a better orchestra. And there are many other fine recordings, more recent, featuring better sound, Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic, and Valery Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonic, to name two. For those who can afford it, I strongly recommend getting both the Dorati and Mravinsky Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 6 "Pathetique", and supplementing it with one of the modern recordings for when you want to wallow in the lush sound that so well suits Tchaikovsky's orchestrations.
Similarly, for #6, Dorati and the London Symphony turn in a marvelous performance. In the roof-raising march that constitutes the third movement, Dorati makes a very effective grand gesture in its coda, followed by a contrasting zippy flourish in the last measure. Still, there is much competition, much of it better recorded, including Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra (a Sony recording whose sound is excellent, but not at the exalted level Telarc bestows upon the same ensemble's recording of No. 4) and a top-notch recording by Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6.
The smaller works in this compilation, which include shorter pieces of Tchaikovsky, a set of variations by Arensky on Tchaikovsky, and one by Borodin, fare pretty well, with the Francesca di Rimini somewhat routine, while the Borodin Prince Igor Overture excels.
Considering the set as a whole, I recommend it to the listener who already has several recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, for the virtuosic playing of the London Symphony and for Dorati's interpretations, which are extremely exciting, and occasionally revelatory. There is also a bonus of several shorter pieces by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, and Borodin. For those looking for definitive performances, I'd say there's no such thing; especially for Symphonies 4-6, which have so much excellent competition. My preferences for each symphony are as follows: Bernstein/NYP on #1 Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, Maazel/VPO on #2 Tchaikovsky: The Symphonies, and Dorati/LSO for #3; the Dorati performances are not available singly; but there is a set available that contains only Symphonies 1-3 Tchaikovsky : Symphony 1,2 and 3, which I highly recommend. When it comes to "best" recordings of Symphonies 4-6, I'd look elsewhere, as noted in my comments on each symphony above.