SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Ov. – Swedish Ch. Orch./ Thomas Dausgaard – BIS

Superb playing and sound, but not enough beef.

Published on December 19, 2012

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Ov. – Swedish Ch. Orch./ Thomas Dausgaard – BIS

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in b, Op. 74 “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture – Swedish Chamber Orch./ Thomas Dausgaard – BIS multichannel SACD 1959, 62:21 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***:

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony (or was It really? Yes, truly, because the so-called “seventh” symphony was actually started after the Fifth, and never completed, the composer working it into the Piano Concerto Op. 75, and the rest of it completed posthumously) has always had this aura of mystery about it; was it a musical suicide note as some have speculated? Probably not—Tchaikovsky was fairly glowing in his letters to brother Modest about his progress on the work, something he indicated he would surely “not tear up”, reflecting his recent considerations of his “first” attempt at a sixth symphony, the aborted movement mentioned above.

In fact there is nothing to indicate any sort of out-of-the-ordinary mood swings normally suffered by the composer—he even seems rather cheery about the whole thing, and was able to conduct the premiere himself, only nine days before his death, and made some corrections that were incorporated into the next performance—as his requiem concert 21 days after his death. The work itself is the third in the tripartite collection of the last three symphonies which deal with the idea of fate, this last, Pathetique, a summation of those efforts here intended to “arouse pity”, quite a contrast to Nos. Four and Five which end rather optimistically. Here there is no confusion; few bars in all of music are as devastatingly bleak as those of the Sixth Symphony.

I have been very pleased with what I have heard of Thomas Dausgaard and his crackerjack Swedish Chamber Orchestra, feeling especially delighted at the results he achieves in his sterling Schumann symphonies, also on BIS in exquisite surround sound. But Schumann is not Tchaikovsky, and a chamber orchestra? Well, it had me worried, and as it turns out, for good reason. 38 players simply cannot be expected to produce the volume of sound that the composer would certainly have expected at the late date of 1893, and while the brilliantly manicured technical ability of these folks, who really are superb musicians, cannot be faulted, the piece simply needs more. The strings sound small, not undernourished, and there is a difference. Everything is clean as a whistle, tempos a little on the upbeat side, but there is little emotional impact here. This is cosmic music, meant to make a huge statement about life and death, and it is being delivered in a vehicle that is not large enough to contain it.

The Romeo and Juliet Overture suffers the same fate, though not as severe as its musical content is far less profound. Dausgaard and company make a good run at it, but it can’t top Bernstein’s DGG recording. Speaking if which, anyone who cares about the symphony has to hear Bernstein’s last run at it, one of the most powerful emotional experiences on record, though I continue to prefer Giulini’s EMI recording with the Philharmonia for everyday use.

—Steven Ritter

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