TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor Op. 74, “Pathétique”; Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 – Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 386, 62:13 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
What we know, or think we know, about the genesis of the Sixth Symphony is complicated by the fact that it was preceded by an unfinished symphony in E-flat which Tchaikovsky began thinking of as early as the spring of 1891, while he was returning to Russia from his successful tour of the eastern United States. In June of that year he sketched out the first theme of the symphony, as well as a program: “The ultimate essence of the symphony is Life. First movement—all passion, confidence, thirst for life. Must be short (finale death—result of collapse). Second movement—love; the third—disappointment; the fourth ends dying away (also short).”
Despite a few more sketches for the symphony, Tchaikovsky’s work on it was stalled by his need to complete his ballet The Nutcracker and one-act opera Iolanta, which were to be premiered on a double bill in December 1892. In the spring of that year, Tchaikovsky was feverishly at work on the symphony, projecting that he would finish by July or August, but his need to correct proofs and make revisions to his two stage works tied him up, and he didn’t get back to the symphony until October. He finished the rough sketches and began orchestrating the first movement in November, but by the middle of December, he stopped work on it, complaining in a letter to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov that he had become disillusioned with the piece and alleging to have destroyed his sketches. That wasn’t the case, however. Instead, Tchaikovsky turned the first movement sketches into the brilliant one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75. After Tchaikovsky’s death, the composer Sergei Taneyev adapted Tchaikovsky’s sketches for the slow movement and finale to create an extension of the concerto dubbed the Andante and Finale, Op. 79. (Incidentally, in the 1950s Russian composer Semyon Bogatyryov stitched together a four-movement symphony from Tchaikovsky’s sketches, publishing it as the Symphony No. 7 in E-flat. It’s an entertaining piece and actually sounds, for the most part, like Tchaikovsky. Eugene Ormandy’s pioneering recording of the work is still the best, but I certainly wish that Pletnev would have a go at it.)
While Tchaikovsky was working on the E-flat Symphony, at some point he shifted gears entirely, abandoning the original program; if you’ve ever heard either of the incarnations of the Third Concerto, you know that it is passionate but by no means desolate. The first movement is a juggernaut of energy, while the finale is jubilant in a balletic sort of way, as you’d expect from Tchaikovsky. Despite the very promising material Tchaikovsky had in hand, his disillusionment over the symphony seemed to stem from the fact that it was devoid of true feeling and “sympathy.” However, thanks to his work on the abandoned symphony, he had a ready-made program that he could believe in. Later, the composer wrote to Bob Davydov that he was working on a symphony that “is drenched with my innermost essence: while composing it, I was constantly shedding bitter tears.” In the same letter he said that the symphony would be a program symphony but one with a program that “is to remain a mystery to all. . . .” Except, of course, that Tchaikovsly had already sketched out the program when he first set to work on his abandoned Symphony in E-flat.
In fact, Tchaikovsky wanted to subtitle his new symphony the Program Symphony but thought better of it since he didn’t want listeners to start trying to unravel the mystery program behind the work. After the Sixth Symphony was premiered in St. Petersburg in November 1893, Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest proposed a different subtitle, Pathétique. Despite the fact that it matched the character of the work pretty well, Tchaikovsky apparently wasn’t fond of the name. But with the tragic death of the composer nine days after the premiere, the nickname looked even more appropriate than before, and it stuck.
Mikail Pletnev seems to subscribe fully to both the program and the nickname. Right from the start, the slow introduction with its lugubrious bassoon writing, Pletnev emphasizes the passion and the pathos, the sense that fate dogs even the best intentions of man. He brings a tasteful soupçon of rubato to the tender second melody, as if hanging on to this brief respite from the pervasive angst. Otherwise, however, Pletnev keeps the levels of tension almost at the breaking point, just on the emotional razor’s edge; the development section has explosive energy here.
The dreamy elegance of Tchaikovsky’s following waltz in 5/4 time—a very unusual one in the composer’s day—comes, as it should, as welcome relief. This movement, according to Tchaikovsky’s 1891 program, is about love, and Pletnev invests it with the proper air of romantic longing. For the next movement, Tchaikovsky apparently departed from his original program to produce one of the great marches in the symphonic literature: no disappointment here, as far as I can tell. It is as thrillingly exuberant in this performance as the slow finale is painfully wrought—not overwrought, but just about. Pletnev really pushes the envelope in the outer movements as far as emotional expression is concerned but ultimately succeeds in creating the atmosphere of deep longing and sorrow that Tchaikovsky must have envisioned. This Sixth is the finest Tchaikovsky symphony performance I’ve heard from a conductor whose second go at the repertoire is proving to be nigh indispensible. I hope that Pentatone will give Pletnev the opportunity to record the early symphonies as well.
The companion piece on this recording provides either a refreshing or a perverse bit of contrast; if you think it’s perverse, save it for another listening session. Pletnev and the Russian National play the piece with a carefree abandon that marks a happier time and place in Tchaikovsky’s life. Capriccio Italien is clearly the lighter side of Tchaikovsky, but it’s skillfully designed and orchestrated and has one of those Dionysian finales (a tarantella) that were Tchaikovsky’s stock-in-trade.
Pentatone complements the efforts of Pletnev and his orchestra with the best recording yet in this series. The engineers have pulled the mics back a little for a more flattering perspective; there’s no loss of presence or detail, but the sound has an increased and welcome spaciousness. This performance (and recording) moves Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky to the next level.
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