Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, ‘Pathétique’: the finest recordings
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
The enigmatic masterwork of Tchaikovsky’s final days remains open to a wide range of interpretations. Andrew Farach‑Colton hears how it has been approached on recordings dating back almost a century
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony carries with it an inordinate amount of baggage – and no wonder, for just eight days after conducting the premiere the composer died in circumstances that remain a mystery. We know he had a programme for the work, but he only hinted at what that musical narrative entailed, leading several generations of scholars to posit wildly different theories. In recent years, for example, Timothy L Jackson has argued that the programme is tied to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, while Marina Ritzarev concluded that the Pathétique illustrates the Passion of Christ in symphonic form.
Of course, the true test of these theories depends not only upon extramusical evidence but on whether they adhere to the letter of the score, and much the same can be said for performances. Listening to four or five dozen recordings of the Pathétique within the course of a few months, I was distressed to find that a majority of conductors are reluctant to trust what’s printed on the page. Perhaps they take the view that Tchaikovsky was a melodist first and a symphonist second, so his structures are malleable or require some sort of remedy (in the way it was thought that Schumann’s orchestration needed fixing). This couldn’t be further from the truth, for not only is the structure of the Sixth absolutely ingenious – with two vivid set pieces (a Waltz in 5/4 time and a March) coming between the epic drama of the first movement and a pithy but potent Adagio finale – but the score is as detailed in its directions as any of Mahler’s. (Mahler greatly admired the Pathétique, in fact, and it could be argued that he might not have composed his own Sixth Symphony without Tchaikovsky’s Sixth as a model). So, for example, not only does Tchaikovsky carefully indicate every tempo change and where to use rubato, but in addition he lays out a clear hierarchy of dynamic markings that, if followed, makes the symphony’s dramatic shape crystal clear.
I want a performance of the Sixth to be dramatic, poetic and imaginative, certainly, but also to take Tchaikovsky at his word. I have two key tests of a faithful interpretation – key, because they greatly affect the work’s structure. The first comes at the end of the opening movement’s feverish development section where, after a desperate battle with swirling strings and vehement calls to arms in the brass, the music sputters momentarily and then – with no marked change in tempo – the strings dig in their heels with long, sustained notes to which the winds and brass gradually add their plangent voices. This culminates in a crushing chord marked ffff, the loudest dynamic marking in the entire symphony and thus the movement’s intended climax. The second test is whether, in the finale, the consolatory D major theme, marked Andante, is taken at a more flowing tempo than the opening Adagio lamentoso. I was rather shocked by how many conductors failed at least one of these tests.
IN THE ELECTRICAL ERA
A few complete (and nearly complete) versions of the Pathétique were made in the acoustic era but the first shellac set to do the score’s sound world any justice was Albert Coates’s 1926 electrical recording, a stupendous performance in many ways. Coates makes the battle in the first movement’s development section, played with ferocious abandon by the LSO, seem a matter of life or death. He does slam on the brakes at the shift to long-held notes (at 11'55"), but at least he doesn’t have the timpani disregard Tchaikovsky’s diminuendo and roar with a crescendo into the slower-moving passage as so many others do. And despite the sudden loss of momentum, Coates coaxes a proper fortissississimo death blow, properly placing the movement’s climax. The inner movements are delightfully characterised – particularly the charming ungainliness of the lopsided Waltz – and although the devotional Andante section of the finale is in more or less the same tempo as the opening Adagio, the sentiment feels right.
It’s a pity that Oskar Fried’s live (!) 1932 recording with the RPO seems to have flown under the radar, as I find his interpretation far more cogent than Serge Koussevitzky’s or Willem Mengelberg’s. In Fried’s hands, the first movement’s development section gathers tremendous emotional weight as it unfolds, and he doesn’t pump the brakes when the rhythms are elongated – or, at least, he tries not to, as some rough ensemble suggests that the RPO were quite used to halving the tempo here. Koussevitzky (from 1930) is marvellous in the inner movements. The Boston Symphony’s cellos sing their off-balance Waltz with an emotionally engaging cantabile, and the third-movement March is exciting, taut and very well played. But both he and Mengelberg (in 1937 and again in 1941 – now on Naxos) push and pull the tempos about in the first movement to the point that it’s rendered episodic. Still, even if he makes free with the text, Mengelberg is memorably persuasive in the finale (particularly in 1937), where he unleashes a juggernaut of devastation.
A PRE-WAR TRIUMVIRATE
I have a special place in my heart for Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1938 studio recording as it was my introduction to that conductor’s art, and I clearly remember the eureka moment of hearing the long-breathed way he has the Berlin Philharmonic’s strings phrase the first movement’s lyrical second theme. Like Koussevitzky and Mengelberg, Furtwängler’s approach to tempo is flexible, yet it feels natural to me in a way that the others don’t. Admittedly, there’s more passionate spontaneity in his live recording from Cairo in 1951 (DG, 5/76, 8/03), and he shapes the first movement more decisively there, too – the ffff climax is more an obliterating implosion than an explosion – but I find him to be an especially eloquent narrator and tone-painter in the studio performance. I love the way he colours the first movement’s coda with sunlight glinting through the smoky remains of a disaster while the symphony’s hero limps away, the emotional fragility with which he imbues the second movement’s central Trio section and the quality of noble, Shakespearean tragedy he brings to the finale.
Furtwängler delivers a masterly, seamless performance in 1938 with the Berlin Philharmonic (photography: Lebrecht Music Arts/Bridgeman Images)
There’s naturalness in the ebb and flow of Arturo Toscanini’s 1942 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a similar wealth of picturesque detail, although the performance has an urgency and bite that puts more of the emphasis on dramatic incident. He places the first movement’s climax unerringly, and his coda displays a wounded pride that’s as affecting in its own way as Furtwängler’s. In the finale, the strings’ luxuriously swooping portamento – oh so lamentoso here – reminds us that the Philadelphia had recently been Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra. Funnily enough, Stoki recorded the Sixth with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony just two years later. Stoki’s is a highly imaginative reading, as one would expect. I like the way he makes the outer sections of the second movement sound tipsy, setting the obsessive hand-wringing of the Trio in stark relief. I don’t like the small cut he makes in the March, however, nor the way he doctors the score in the finale to double the violins at the octave at 6'23" – a glimmer of Hollywood glitz and sentimentality that’s quite out of place.
FOUR FAITHFUL FROM THE ’50s
Turning from the extravagances of Stokowski to a quartet of steadfast interpretations from the 1950s is something of a relief. Paul van Kempen, in 1951, draws one into the narrative instantly with a richly atmospheric introduction. Indeed, although he maintains relatively steady tempos, the Concertgebouw play with the same kind of character and commitment they did for Mengelberg. Listen to the wall of sound the orchestra throw up at 12'53" (as if they’re barricading the door) before the climactic chord; or, in the March, to the spring in their collective step, and at quite a leisurely tempo at that. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is how the finale is built from phrases that have the visceral impact of bodily gestures.
Pierre Monteux’s 1955 RCA recording has similar qualities to van Kempen’s but in superb stereo sound, the Boston Symphony’s ensemble tighter even than the Concertgebouw’s. Monteux brings out the balletic aspects of the score, not just in the two inner movements but in the first movement’s Allegro non troppo as well. When Tchaikovsky writes incalzando (‘pressing on’) in the lyrical second theme (at 4'40"), Monteux does just that, and his rubato is miraculously unselfconscious. Then, in the finale, he manages to find a middle ground between Furtwängler’s nobility and Toscanini’s dramatic fervour.
For an instructive counterpoint to Monteux’s Gallic grace, there’s Carlo Maria Giulini’s incisive yet poetic 1959 Philharmonia recording (also in excellent stereo). Giulini is especially attentive to the score’s extraordinary dynamic range. The hush with which he begins the first movement’s second theme is quite literally breathtaking, yet he can hit hard when required, although he does so with a silk glove. Note, too, the refreshing coolness of that first movement’s coda, which is oddly full of possibility, as if Tchaikovsky had placed a ‘once upon a time’ at the end of the movement instead of at the beginning. The second movement sings, even in the tiniest grace notes, and the third movement is exceptionally light and articulate – almost Mendelssohnian in the opening minutes. The conductor’s 1980 remake with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (DG, 10/81, 4/83) seems wan in comparison.
I’ll also take Ferenc Fricsay’s 1953 recording of the Sixth over his 1959 stereo redo (DG, A/03). Yes, the sonic clarity of the latter recording is a huge plus, but the structural lucidity and musical fidelity of the mono account is far superior. It must be said that while the Berlin RSO play brilliantly for Fricsay in 1959, the Berlin Philharmonic (in 1953 still very much Furtwängler’s orchestra) are finer still. The first movement’s climax in the earlier recording is positively cataclysmic, with a ffff chord worthy of the hammer-blows in Mahler’s Sixth. The March packs a wallop, too. Although it begins in a festive mood, its energy becomes increasingly unnerving to a point at which, in the final minutes, I sense a hint of violence. I do wish Fricsay wasn’t quite so resigned so early on in the finale, ignoring the coda’s expressive fortissimo and sforzando accent markings, but this (and a few other textual alterations) can’t blunt this Pathétique’s considerable force.
There are those, like the late (and much-missed) Edward Greenfield, who insist that Yevgeny Mravinsky’s 1960 recording of the Pathétique is, as EG put it, ‘a caricature’ of his searing 1956 account (DG, 2/57). And he had a point. There’s a sense in the latter version that Mravinsky is showing us the emotional volume can ‘go to 11’ (in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel from This is Spinal Tap). And yet this intensity – enhanced by shallow, in-your-face early stereo sound – is utterly gripping from start to finish. Never mind that he alters the marked dynamics in the first movement’s development; the Leningrad Philharmonic’s white-hot music-making silences niggling criticism. So does the fact that there’s a wealth of delicacy: the same movement’s coda has marvellous vulnerability, for instance; the horns at 1'03" in the 5/4 Waltz coo like birds; and the March is feather-light in the first half, although, like Fricsay, it comes close to violence near the end. The finale flows in long phrases, and there’s no fat here; Mravinsky makes every note count. All in all, it’s an interpretation whose legendary status is justified.
I’ve had Igor Markevitch’s Philips recording in my library since my university days but hadn’t heard it in many years. Returning to it now, I had high expectations and, I’m sad to say, was a little disappointed. There’s some sour intonation from the LSO, the March starts well but becomes stodgy, and his overall attention to dynamics leaves a lot to be desired – surely the cellos in the second movement are louder than mezzo-forte, the gong-stroke in the finale is forte rather than piano, and yet the strings in the coda sound wan rather than agonised.
The Moscow Philharmonic’s cellos sound larger than life in the sepulchral acoustic of Kirill Kondrashin’s 1965 Melodiya recording, but this is, in its own way, as impressive an interpretation as Mravinsky’s. The phrasing in the first movement’s Allegro non troppo is beautifully dovetailed, the development begins with gut-punches and ends with a piling on of woe. And despite the outsized cellos in the Waltz (or perhaps aided by them?), the shift to the Trio feels cinematic, like going from an outdoor scene to something more interior and psychological. But it’s the finale where Kondrashin hits the hardest – even the silences crackle with emotion – especially at the end, where the muted violins cry out in anguish, making the extent of the tragedy devastatingly clear.
A BIG-LEAGUE PAIR
Rob Cowan surveyed Herbert von Karajan’s half-dozen recordings of the Sixth not too long ago (1/08), and I agree wholeheartedly that the conductor’s 1964 Berlin recording is the most successful. In fact, it’s a beautiful, cultivated performance, and one that gets the symphony’s proportions exactly right. What makes it special is Karajan’s attention to detail – the wealth of colour revealed by his attention to inner voices, for instance – as well as his magical ability to convey raptness, which pays off big time in the lyrical passages of the outer movements.
Karajan’s 1964 Berlin performance reveals careful attention to detail (photography: Archivio Arici/Bridgeman Images)
There are extraordinary moments, too, in the last and most (in)famous of Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of the Pathétique, recorded live in New York in 1986. After a world-weary introduction, his broadly paced Allegro non troppo indicates that he’ll be painting on a huge canvas, and he does so most vividly for the first three movements. I love how distant the clarinet sounds before the first-movement coda – like a dream that’s painfully out of reach – and no other version I’ve heard casts so many ominous shadows over the third-movement March. It’s the indulgently slow finale that spoils it for me. Bernstein was capable of magical music-making, there’s no doubt, but even his wizardry doesn’t allow the movement’s through-line to be sustained at such a marmoreal tempo.
The Oslo Philharmonic recorded the first Tchaikovsky symphony cycle of the digital era for Chandos, winning raves in the pages of this magazine and bringing wider recognition to both the orchestra and its conductor, Mariss Jansons. Hearing it in this wider context, their account of the Sixth (recorded the same year as Bernstein’s – 1/87) is impressively clear-headed and tidy but not especially individual. Jansons recorded the Sixth again in 2013 with the Bavarian RSO, giving stronger shape to the overall structure and investing nearly every phrase and section with vibrance and character. He certainly digs deeper in the first-movement development, and the struggle displays not just blood, sweat and tears but sinew and muscle. The March is (thankfully) played in 4/4, as written, not two beats to a bar, as it was in Oslo. In both accounts Jansons takes the devotional Andante section of the finale slightly slower than the Adagio opening, rather than faster, but the way he makes the pianissimos sound like whispers around a deathbed in the 2013 recording is a memorable touch.
Pletnev directs an inspired and articulate performance in 1991 with the Russian National Orchestra (photography: ZUMA Press; Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)
The 1991 debut disc by the then newly formed Russian National Orchestra also garnered abundant praise in Gramophone and elsewhere, and with good reason. Mikhail Pletnev (in his recorded conducting debut) directs an inspired and exceptionally articulate performance – and one that’s quite faithful to the score. After a ghostly Allegro non troppo, the lyrical theme ushers us into a whole new world, then the development seems to be drawn by gravitational pull to the overwhelming ffff climax. By leaning into the small but crucial dissonances in the second movement’s Trio, Pletnev anticipates the anguish of the finale. The March, meanwhile, is akin to a manic episode, and there’s cathartic sincerity in the Adagio lamentoso.
I wish space had allowed me to include Guido Cantelli’s darkly sober 1952 recording with the Philharmonia (EMI/Warner, 4/79), Václav Talich’s similarly dusky 1953 account with the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon, 7/77) and Riccardo Muti’s 1979 trenchant Philharmonia account (EMI/Warner, 1/89), with its woozy trombone threnody in the finale, as if the low brass were reeling from a blow to the head. And I feel particularly badly to have omitted more recent and quite excellent performances by Vladimir Jurowski (LPO, 11/09), Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Rotterdam Phil (DG, 12/13) and Vasily Petrenko with the RLPO (Onyx, 3/17).
Several older recordings either never made it to digital format or have been deleted but are worth searching out, particularly those by Nicolai Malko (HMV, 11/47) and Paul Kletzki (HMV, 11/61), both with the Philharmonia. And because black conductors continue to struggle for recognition, I must mention Dean Dixon with the Cologne RSO (Oriole, 3/64) and Henry Lewis with the RPO (Decca, 7/69). Both deserve credit for forgoing histrionics and taking Tchaikovsky largely at his word.
FIDELITY AND GALL
Three recordings from the past decade are exceptional. The first, by Teodor Currentzis with MusicAeterna (2015), stands out because it’s controversial. I’ll admit I was bowled over by the sheer gutsiness of his orchestra’s playing when I first heard it. My enthusiasm quickly waned, however, for instead of trusting the score and trying to fit its puzzle pieces together, Currentzis more or less rewrites it, adding or altering articulation and dynamic markings right and left. Everything is played for maximum effect, and the result is akin to hearing the Sixth in the aural equivalent of a funhouse mirror. Try the first movement’s Allegro non troppo, where he throws in a series of echo effects, as if what Tchaikovsky wrote wasn’t interesting enough and needed pizzazz (cue Broadway ‘jazz hands’). Sure, the March is clear and clean enough but it ultimately comes across as a virtuoso display piece in a performance that reveals more about Currentzis than Tchaikovsky.
The power of the Pathétique when Tchaikovsky’s instructions are followed to the letter is demonstrated by two of the most faithful ever committed to disc. Semyon Bychkov, also issued in 2015, finds a world of poetry in the score. He doesn’t push the first-movement development too fast yet really captures its fight-or-flight character, and it moves as if pulled by the inexorable undertow of an ocean wave, finally crashing at the ffff chord. His Waltz is elegantly wistful, the March – which goes from Mendelssohnian airiness to overbearing military swagger – is greatly enhanced by antiphonal violins, and he gets the tempo relationships exactly right in the finale without sacrificing an ounce of pain or passion. Maybe the Czech Philharmonic winds aren’t as characterful today as they were in the 1950s for Talich but the orchestra’s dark, burnished tone is still a wonder in itself.
Kirill Petrenko’s 2017 recording, again with the Berliners, is faithful to the letter of Tchaikovsky’s score (photography: Monika Rittershaus/Berliner Philharmoniker)
Bychkov’s is a performance I’d be happy to live with, for sure, but forced to pick just one recording of the Sixth, it would have to be Kirill Petrenko’s from 2017 (his first recording as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic). Like Bychkov, Petrenko has considered every one of Tchaikovsky’s markings and – mirabile dictu – he makes sense of them all. More than any other conductor I’ve heard, he demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the composer knew exactly what he wanted. Not only that but his recording brings together the best qualities of some of my other favourites – Furtwängler’s long-breathed phrasing, Monteux’s balletic grace, Giulini’s fierce nobility and Pletnev’s articulate power. It also happens to be flawlessly played and recorded with stunning transparency. Some may want even more thrills and chills – though I think Petrenko offers plenty – but I believe that by being so faithful to the letter of the score, he gets us as close as possible to that enigmatic programme Tchaikovsky had in mind. How could I ask for anything more?
BPO / Kirill Petrenko (2017)
Kirill Petrenko is faithful to Tchaikovsky’s score in its minutest detail, and he uses this focus to build a performance that’s as characterful as it is coherent. Played to the hilt by the Berlin Philharmonic and recorded in sound that gives new meaning to ‘high fidelity’, it’s truly a performance to live with.
A MOST POETIC PATHÉTIQUE
BPO / Wilhelm Furtwängler (1938)
Furtwängler’s mastery of the art of transition pays off in spades in his 1938 recording, where the work’s stark juxtapositions fit together seamlessly in a performance that eschews theatrics yet arouses profound emotion (the very definition of pathétique) through patient phrasing and vivid, thoughtful characterisation.
IRON FIST IN A SILK GLOVE
Philh Orch / Carlo Maria Giulini (1959)
Giulini’s 1959 recording is hard-hitting, and the climaxes register with considerable force. At the same time, however, there’s a consistent lyrical impetus (born, perhaps, from the conductor’s background in Italian opera houses) aided in large part by the elegant, graceful playing of the Philharmonia in their early stereo-era prime.
VIRTUOSO CON FUOCO
RNO / Mikhail Pletnev (1991)
Hard to believe the RNO were barely a year old when they recorded this scorcher of a Pathétique under Pletnev (his conducting debut on disc), and they play with an articulateness and virtuoso abandon that’s much like Pletnev’s pianism, igniting a frisson that recalls Mravinsky’s legendary recordings.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today