TCHAIKOVSKY:  Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74 PathÈtiqueRomeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.
Kirov Orch/Valery Gergiev, cond.

Philips  456 580  (F) (DDD)  TT:  69:15

TCHAIKOVSKY:  Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74  PathÈtique. MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL:  Pictures at an Exhibition
Philharmonia Orch/Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. 
BBC Living Legends  4023 (F) (mono - ADD) TT:  75:51

Tchaikovsky considered the PathÈtique to be his best work, "the most sincere of all of my compositions.  I love it as I have never loved any of my musical children."  Nine days after the successful premiere October 28, 1893 he was dead under mysterious circumstances that still are controversial.  Some say he unknowingly drank a glass of unboiled water at a dinner in a restaurant, thereby contracting fatal cholera; others insist he committed suicide to avoid repercussions from a homosexual affair with the son of an aristocrat in the imperial service. 

The composer's younger brother, Modest suggested the title of "patetichesky," which in Russian means "1. enthusiastic, passionate; 2. emotional; 3. bombastic."  Tchaikovsky  liked this title and wrote it on the score he sent to his publisher. However, two days later he changed his mind and instructed that the work should simply be called Symphony No. 6, with a dedication to his nephew, Vladimir David. The publisher, Pyotr Ivanovich Jurgenson, realized the commercial value of a descriptive title, and published the work as Symphonie pathÈtique -- but pathÈtique was a mistranslation of patetichesky.  To this day, this symphony goes under this title even though the meaning is not what Tchaikovsky intended.

The symphony does plumb the depths of despair and hopelessness.  The first movement contains what is probably Tchaikovsky's best-known theme (aside from the first piano concerto), the second is an odd waltz, the third a stirring, frantic march in bold contrast to what follows.  The last movement has been characterized as a "musical suicide letter."  Sobbing strings build to a sad, massive climax followed by a new impassioned theme, the very essence of hopeless despair. At the climax the tam-tam lays its one shuddering note in the entire work, and the symphony ends, as it had begun, in gloom and despair, with sobbing strings and a single bassoon.

The current Schwann/Opus lists over fifty recordings of the PathÈtique, to which we now add these two issues, one new, one old.  Valery Gergiev's is superb in every way, dramatic and passionate, with a dazzling March.  The coupling, Romeo and Juliet, is equally impassioned. Sonically, this is one of Philips' best.  If you are looking for a modern  digital recording of these works, you could do no better than this.   Giulini's BBC live recording from September 7, 1961,  two years after his EMI recording with the same orchestra, is prosaic by comparison.  I have no problem with monophonic sound if the performance is exceptional, but this one isn't.  Giulini made another recording in 1981 with the Los Angeles for DG, again a thoughtful rather than inspired interpretation. Likewise, the accompanying Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition recorded at the same concert is beautifully played with considerable insight, but there are countless other performances of equal or more interest that are far better recorded

Surely those with an interest in the PathÈtique should investigate historic recordings by Furtwangler, Mengelberg,  Toscanini  (Philadelphia) and Van Kempen.  Leonard Bernstein's 1986 New York Philharmonic recording is one of the most searching, with its 17:12 finale. Evgeny Mravinsky's 1982 Leningrad recording is also very special, the most demonic of all.

R.E.B. (Mar. 2000)