Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6, Pathétique

A strikingly mature Pathétique from Franck, plus some tantalising Rautavaara

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6, Pathétique

  • Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique'
  • Symphony No. 6, 'Vincentiana', Apotheosis

Talk about an old head sitting on young shoulders. Amazing how a lad in his early twenties can feel Tchaikovsky’s most harrowing symphony with such acute sensitivity to its tragic subtext. ‘Good on you!’ I thought to myself as Mikko Franck broadened the first movement’s tortured largamente, forte possible to Celibidachean proportions. In an accompanying note Franck explains how the Pathétique followed him through childhood illness to eventual recovery. His performance takes personal response as its truest prompt and the score as its guide, surveying paragraphs with a generous sweep, keeping the pace mostly slow (the first movement runs to some 22 minutes) and taking obvious pains over articulation, such as he does in the scherzo-movement’s precise opening paragraphs.

The first movement’s development is measured and emphatic, the Andante that precedes it again fairly broad. It certainly adds up, but if you’re following with score and metronome (I wouldn’t suggest that you do) there’ll be plenty to question – majestic tempi, elongated pauses and expressive ritardandi, for example. Franck’s second movement is hardly con grazia, the slowed central section sounding like a sullen precursor of mature Sibelius. I admired the scherzo’s menacing tread, its refusal to budge from a purposeful basic pulse, until the last few moments when Franck suddenly pushes on the breaks. Not that he needed to: the guns were already big enough. The finale is the saddest imaginable leave-taking, all 14 minutes of it, three of them reserved for the closing andante giusto, which is surely just too slow. But then this is such an intensely individual reading that to start bickering by the book would be both fruitless and tedious. You can take it from me that Mikko Franck has his own very distinctive ideas about how this piece should go. His is a big, stark, deeply pondered Pathétique, the sort that certain Finnish conductors from an earlier generation, men such as Schnéevoigt or Hannikainen, might also have given us. Franck brooks no compromise, tallies with no one and in future years will probably change his mind again and again.

The Tchaikovsky is preceded by the glowing ‘Apotheosis’ from Rautavaaara’s Sixth Symphony Vincentiana, music based on an opera about the life and work of Van Gogh. Here, as in much of the Pathétique, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with obvious passion, while Franck’s feel for the rise and fall of the musical line is infinitely more acute than Max Pommer’s on a rival Helsinki Philharmonic recording of the parent symphony (also on Ondine). It is also markedly swifter. My hope now is that Franck will give us more Rautavaaara and, while not wanting to antagonise our more conservative readers, more Tchaikovsky, too. A rostrum voice of this quality demands to be heard.

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