Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique”/Tchaikovsky

March 29, 2011


So much has been written about how the untimely death of Tchaikovsky was somehow tied into the way he wrote his final symphony that I could spend an entire month just reading about it and probably have. We know that he died from cholera as a result of drinking water that was not boiled. While I have read a bit about the suicide theory, his homosexual encounters with his nephew, and the palace itself being involved, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is of no importance when it comes to the enjoyment of his last composition. We know that he conducted it and then passed away nine days later. We know that he gave the pathetic title to it after the premiere performance as he was disappointed in the response from the audience. The name “pathetique” appeared in the program in the memoriam concert. I’ve listened to the third movement, a march, and these are not the thoughts of a depressed person, far from it. The second movement is a waltz something the imperial court encouraged. In between are two beautiful adagios. The first movement is a beautiful melody that a popular song was made out of it with lyrics “Tonight We Love.” The fourth movement is a tragic one with the symphony fading into nothing and because of this the theories began. I am more inclined to think that he said what he desired in the work and ended the piece in virtual silence.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of conductors and orchestras I’ve listened to in regards to the sixth symphony. How then does one know what to listen for in a good recording of the “Pathetique?” I don’t include historical or older analog in this question because to the average listener this material won’t be acceptable. Usually they can have some surface noise, have shrilly treble, tubby bass, and definitely lower dynamic range. The 1950’s Living Stereo RCA recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony falls into that category. There is a tape hiss; less dynamic range and a definite shrill to the brass in the loud parts. None of what I say has anything to do with the performance because it is top drawer. In time if one develops a real interest the historical material is of merit because you can hear through this and appreciate a fine performance.

Does the tempo appear to be hurried or slow? One can get a feel for a work and determine if it is at a comfortable pace between rushed and plodding after listening to other recordings. My Vox Box (CDX 5004) with Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony has a couple of spots where it is played way too slow and makes me cringe. Other parts are fine such as the playing and recording of the percussion. The fact that Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra have had such experience with this work is a definite plus. It is played at a comfortable pace between rushed and plodding. When you listen to an individual instrument in the orchestra such as the bassoon is it clear sounding with smooth notes or is it muddy? Can you hear the bassoon half way through when it is barely a whisper (pppppp). The Delos recording is quite clear in both areas. As an example you can’t really hear the bassoon on the Naxos (8.550782 from 1993) recording with Wit conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Very early on in digital before the CD vinyl was the media and showcased as the sound that was superior to anything else. Soundstream, a company at the head of the pack, was used by Delos. Again in the first movement is there a shrill to the short flute solo or is it clear and easy to listen to? Does the clarinet that follows closely afterwards have a nice smooth sound? Do the French Horns have a  mellow sound as they play the harmony during the lush melody in the first movement? Does the sound generate from the same location or does it sound like there is a hallway in between some of the orchestra sections? The Delos recording can answer yes to all of these questions.

Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra give a fine performance in this 1983 recording. Delos has done a superior job in reproducing the sound in this early showcase example of digital recording. Highly recommended.

Delos D/CD 3016


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