TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Ov. – Czech Philharmonic/ Semyon Bychkov – Decca

The Tchaikovsky Project” from Semyon Bychkov and Decca opens with two tragic scores. 

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in b, Op. 74 “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture – Czech Philharmonic Orch./ Semyon Bychkov – Decca 483 0656, 63:53 (10/14/16)  [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Russian-American conductor Semyon Bychkov (b. 1952) embarks on “The Tchaikovsky Project,” an extensive survey of the composer’s major works, including symphonies, concertos, symphonic poems, and incidental music. The present recording (17-19 August and 24-26 September 2015) from Prague’s Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, has Bychkov’s leading the Czech Philharmonic, an ensemble well familiar with the Pathetique Symphony by way of work with Vaclav Talich and Lovro von Matacic. The 1893 symphony deliberately courts the theme of mortality, invoking the marking morendo for dynamic phrasing and scoring the dark instrumental colors of the winds and strings. True to his Russian Orthodox heritage, Tchaikovsky quotes the melody of the Orthodox Requiem twice, after the climax in movement one and at the end of movement four. The key relations between movements remain narrow, incremental in half-steps, as though the “mortal coil” had already made its presence felt artistically. Commentators have pointed out that even the seeming dynamic energy and relative freedom of the Allegro molto vivace third movement poses a sinister series of jarring moments in its bass line and harmonic rhythm.

There have been extraordinary readings of this work, and I count among them recordings by Furtwaengler, Mengelberg, Mravinsky, Talich, Rodzinski, and Toscanini. Bychkov takes a literalist approach, dependent on the glowing timbre of his ensemble to radiate Tchaikovsky’s emotional transports. The orchestral response remains excellent, alluring in the strings, and heady and opulent in the trumpets. The low bassoon at the outset invokes at once a dark odyssey and turbulent outburst that concludes with “walking pizzicati.” At the close, the ffff marking, audibly lugubrious, heralds the end of a life’s tragic journey. The waltz sequence, Allegro con grazia, complements a 5/4 waltz Tchaikovsky gave us in his Op. 72 piano pieces, a Valse a cinq temps, which creates an unsteady sense of repose.  Likely, the format of a concluding Adagio (lamentoso) appealed to Mahler, whose own Ninth Symphony contains a world of experience that ends in gloom. Bychkov argues that the D Major theme and its sudden collapse into b minor indicate not resignation, but protest.

Bychkov, whose program notes accompany the recording, claims the 1869 Romeo and Juliet Fantasy as among his first loves in music. His performance – which maintains the powerful coda, unlike Stokowski – runs competitively with the streamlined version of Guido Cantelli. Bychkov feels the love theme as a kind of liebestod, and his admiration for Tchaikovsky’s counterpoint – much advocated by his mentor Balakirev – knows no bounds. Has anyone attended to the “Icarus” motif in the play: Romeo compares Juliet to the sun, and love will give him wings. . . Once more, the warmth of the performance glows, courtesy of recording engineer Stephan Reh. At the funeral march at the symphonic poem’s end, the sense of fateful doom lingers long after the fermata.

—Gary Lemco

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