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Columbia's new recording of the Tchaikowski Fifth Symphony, played by Rodzinski and the Cleveland Symphony, Orchestra, offers a fresh opportunity to hear this great work, and its miracles of beauty and power. The recording supplies a long-standing need for a good rendition of the symphony, as there has been heretofore nothing but Stokowski's old Victor album, full of the cheapest kind of distortion and the most cloying saccharinity. Rodzinski plays the symphony with verve, but straightforwardly. He brings out not the sobbing emotionalism which people profess to find in Tchaikowski, but the wonderful melodic flow, the freedom of motion, and the unfailing dramatic sense. If, as someone told me, the original soundtrack of the recording was speeded up for the first movement, it is all to the good, for the speeding-up tends to unify and bring out the organic growth of the movement.
Several weeks ago many readers were offended by a sentence in this column which, without explanation, dismissed the Brahms symphonies as "academic exercises". What I meant by the statement is this: when one listens to a Tchaikowski symphony, such as the Fourth or Fifth, one follows easily and clearly the tonal pattern. Contrasting themes grow naturally out of each other, and there is a sense of inevitability about the working-out of material, a smooth flow and a feeling for clarity and balance. One gets none of this feeling from a symphony like the Brahms First. Here there is no free flow in the melodic line, but the most clogged turgidity. To my mind, at least, there is the effect of a good deal of patient labor behind it all, a solid dose of elbow-grease and midnight-oil, with little to back it up. Everything gives the impression of being too carefully and consciously calculated. Moreover, the orchestration is muddy and inflated. There are those, and I am one of them, who dislike Tchaikowski's excessively ballet type of orchestration, his pizzicato and arpeggio-mannerisms. But these are at least part and parcel of his style; they are handled masterfully and in such a way as to become a perfect vehicle for his ideas. But Brahm's true medium is the small lyric. When he ventures into the symphonic form, he loses all proportion. The scoring of the First Symphony and D minor piano concerto is unrelievedly heavy, the composer's unfortunate attempts at instrumental color only serving to increase the impression of something overly labored.
On the technical side the new recording is well-nigh perfect, and is typical of the impressive job Columbia has been doing with its recent releases. The newer surfaces are velvety-smooth, lacking a hiss which to some extent mars Victor recordings. Columbia, furthermore, takes far more care to perfect a set than Victor. Rarely will you find, in their albums, the negligence that creeps into a Victor set, a break ill-timed in the middle of a movement, an orchestral entrance made before the sound-track starts, or exasperatingly, an entrance made late, several barren seconds during which you hear the needle scraping around the record. Mistakes like these spoil the continuity of a work, and can, if listened to repeatedly, become infuriating. However, until such time as Victor finds its sales lagging or its critics too loud to ignore, it will continue to neglect these points, and sit preening its feathers on its contribution to American culture.
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