Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.5 performed by the Orchestre National de France

Duration : 49 minutes

The Orchestre National de France, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, performs the Symphony no.5 by Piotr Ilitch Tchaïkovsky (1840-1893). Excerpt from the concert recorded live on 31 May 2018 at the Radio France Auditorium (Paris).

Early 1888, a tour of Europe led Tchaikovsky to Hamburg where he met the director of the Philharmonic Society, the octogenarian Théodore Avé-Lallemant. A great admirer of the composer, the latter suggested nonetheless that he leave his native Russia, source of the tawdry aspects of his music! Less than a year later, with no hard feelings, Tchaikovsky dedicated his newly-composed Symphony no.5 to Avé-Lallemant. Though more than eleven years separating the fourth and fifth symphonies, they both have in common a similar organisation of the musical material centered on a recurring motif, symbolising Destiny. In the Symphony no.4, the "fatum" (a term used by Tchaikovsky in a letter to his patron Nadejda von Meck) can be heard in three of the four movements. The leitmotiv of the Fifth is even more prominent, a true "idée fixe" in the Berliozian sense of the word, appearing in all four movements, affording them a persistent tragic force. On a manuscript sketch, Tchaikovsky wrote about his symphony's opening: "Total submission before Fate - or, what is the same thing - the inscrutable designs of Providence."

The motif is heard from the very opening of the work (lower strings, bassoons, and clarinets), a sombre introduction followed by an Allegro con anima with a dotted rhythm of "breath-taking lyricism" (André Lischke). The first movement remains in the lower registers, but pianississimo. "Tchaikovsky believed in the evocative power of the smallest pianissimos", explains the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev in a recent book*. "There are passages in his score, which open with a simple piano, meaning that the music must be played with a particular softness. Then come the double pianos, and the triple (...). This gradation towards silence has always fascinated me." It is with a pianissimo that opens the second movement, a murmur from the lower strings, before a great horn solo, one of the longest in the symphonic repertoire. The tender and fervent character of the Andante, with many cantilenas by the wind section (horn, oboe, clarinet…) is interrupted by the sudden rise of the Fate motif by the trumpets. The third movement, the symphony's shortest, is in the style of a waltz in which the idée-fixe appears suddenly towards the end. The final movement opens with the motif, but now transformed, now in a major key and in the form of a chorus. A move from the shadows to the light, like Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)? For Valery Gergiev, the Symphony no.5 is "perhaps the most joyous of the last three. It gives a precious mix of drama and levity. Not only during the great horn solo [of the second movement], but indeed throughout the entire work. Everything is wonderfully balanced." The premiere's audience was enthusiastic, the critics ruthless: "A symphony and three waltzes, with a most vulgar instrumentation, is this not enough to characterise M. Tchaikovsky as a composer who has nothing left to say?", wrote one critic in the publication Dien’ ("The Day").

130 years later, Gergiev's remarks come as an answer: "(Tchaikovsky) knew particularly well how to write for an orchestra, and how to give it an incredible impact. For those conductors performing his music, it is both an opportunity and also a risk. It is easy to kill the Tchaikovsky spirit simply with a poorly-executed forte! One must never confuse power with intensity. Tchaikovsky's sound must never be tawdry or aggressive. His being, his culture, and his music were all aristocratic. The opposite of vulgarity (...) I believe that, over time, Tchaikovsky developed a sense of mystery surrounding life and death. An incredible fear, too, as shown by the strange circumstances of his death. From his Fourth Symphony onwards, a tormented soul began to take over. Tchaikovsky seized his audiences by the throat. One could sense a fateful force stopping the happiness from reaching its potential. It was impossible for him to hide this persistent sorrow."

*Valery Gergiev, Rencontre, by Betrand Dermoncourt, published by Actes sud in 2018.

The Orchestre National de France performs Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev with the pianist Beatrice Rana
Full concert
The Orchestre National de France performs Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev with the pianist Beatrice Rana
Auditorium de Radio France
Pyotr Ilitch Tchaïkovsky
Pyotr Ilitch Tchaïkovsky
All artists
  • Emmanuel Krivine
    Emmanuel KrivineConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra