Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 in Em, op. 64

Performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink

This has got to be one of my recent favorites. It would be in my top five at the moment (although, if I were to make a top five list, it wouldn’t be anything exciting. Lots of pretty common symphonies, no exquisite taste I suppose). It’s been somewhat popular this season at the symphony. I’ve heard it on a few programs in the last few months.

I haven’t had much of the brainpower this week to take on new writing and talk about it constructively, so I am reverting back for the first time to a piece I am already familiar with.

I do particularly enjoy Tchaikovsky’s writing. It’s so rich and emotional. And… For his symphonies, I find it far easier to grasp the structural ideas and motifs than with others, even if I don’t pick up on key changes and what keys and what tension it builds (at least not consciously), especially with a symphony like this that is cyclical. It is nice to hear snippets of something so familiar and see clearly how they all relate to the big picture of the piece. Also, it’s just stunningly moving and beautiful.

I’ve also studied this score probably more than any other symphony (which still isn’t much), but I almost got sick of listening to it for a while there. Even so, it’s so enjoyable to come back to and hear again.

This version is noticeably slower (especially in the second theme of the first movement) than I remember, probably because the last two live performances were played at almost breakneck speed. The middle two movements were about the same. The waltz is shiningly, shimmeringly, endearingly beautiful.

I first heard this piece live with the Ural philharmonic orchestra and Dmitri Liss. Boris Berezovsky had just played Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto with them, and this was the second piece on the program. I’d given it a few casual listens before the performance to try to familiarize myself with it, and the themes from the first movement have stuck with me since then. I end up humming them all week if I listen to it. It was fantastic to hear them perform it live. It was passionate and inspired and I came to love this symphony.

It’s like a nice scavenger hunt to pick up on the little bits of the motifs and themes that pop up throughout this piece. I imagine it could be a good introductory symphony for someone new to classical music. I’d say Beethoven’s fifth would too, but a newbie may find a few dull moments here and there. I feel this fifth is just grippingly wonderful the entire way through.

One thing that I always forget about this piece is that the final movement has a coda that has a coda that has a coda. It feels like it ends about three times, and there’s always some new little section to end it more grandly than it just did. This is part of what makes this piece feel so grandiose and generally awesome: its plentiful themes and how they intertwine and finish so extravagantly. It’s pretty wonderful.

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