Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Hamlet Overture

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Hamlet Overture
PERFORMER: City of Birmingham SO/Andris Nelsons
CATALOGUE NO: C 780 901 A

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How times have changed. Only a few years ago the main companies’ top conductors would be routinely unleashed on Tchaikovsky just to fill their quota. Now he’s espoused by the best of the new, and Andris Nelsons (see p30), the City of Birmingham SO’s principal conductor since 2008, is certainly one of them.

Right from the lugubrious opening clarinet solo, you can feel him nuancing with tender loving care, adding dynamic variations of his own in the manner of Mariss Jansons, and pacing the longer-term arguments to hit the climaxes in exactly the right places.

So, too, did Dudamel with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra – a performance I thrill to much more than did Michael Tanner in the May issue – and only by their standards is this finale less than adrenalin charged. But Nelsons makes up with the keen balance between strings and woodwind (piercing and earthy when introducing the first movement’s lyrical countersubject), and a few surprising details in a waltz better sprung than Dudamel’s; wonderful here the accenting bassoonist, and the jolly trumpet tuckets I’ve never noticed before. A pity the clear, forward sound is just a little brittle.

Hamlet, a much less fêted work contemporary with the Fifth, and surely its equal in thematic strength, makes a challenging companion: incisive on the attack, awesome with tam-tam as the ghost declaims, again attractively phrased by the woodwind in Ophelia’s very Russian reverie.

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Only the fact that Nelsons can be just a little studied at times leaves the CBSO’s Tchaikovsky symphony debut on CD short of its fifth star – one I’d gladly accord to portions of the Dudamel interpretation. David Nice