I’m a great fan of Karajan’s mid-70s recordings of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies on Deutsche Grammaphon. To my ears they express the sweep and passion of these great works, without being overwrought. The 2005 edition of the Gramophone Good CD Guide nominates them as the finest of Karajan’s many recordings of the works, and the Penguin Guide To Compact Discs concurs. The only slight irritation is that the 5th Symphony is split, with the first two movements on disc one and the second on disc two. The February 2007 edition of BBC Music Magazine recommends Karajan’s Complete Tchaikovsky Symphonies of which these recordings form a part.
The BBC Tchaikovsky Experience good CD section opts for Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra from 1960, admiring an approach to orchestral playing that has disappeared from modern interpretations: ‘Tearing into their phrases, the Leningrad winds are closely scrutinized – there’s no attempt to mask the lack of refinement arising from their limited access to the best instruments and reeds – while the weighty, focused quality of the string playing is the stuff of legend, dominating the sound-stage without running to fat.’
As for other versions, the Penguin Guide’s top recommendation goes to Mikhail Pletnev’s account with the Russian National Orchestra: ‘The dark colourings of the finale and the soulful lyricism of the strings resonate in the memory.’ Gramophone Magazine gives this the thumbs up too: ‘The brass retain their penetrating power, and an extraordinary richness and solemnity before the symphony’s coda, and the strings posess not only the agility to cope with Pletnev’s aptly death-defying speed for the third movement march, but beauty of tone for Tchaikovsky’s yearning cantabiles.’ Penguin also has great things to say about Mariss Jansons’ version with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos, which is available on CD or as a download from the Chandos site, or as part of the complete symphony box set: ‘The great second subject melody is at once warm and passionate yet totally unsentimental, with rubato barely noticeable.’