TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 6 (Petrenko)
Pierre Boulez – no conductor of Tchaikovsky – used to give performances that rendered a pocket score redundant. There was no need to peer into the texture for hard-to-hear or often-overlooked details. There they all were, especially in the Stravinsky/Diaghilev ballets, registered not for the sake of score-bound pedantry or picaresque charm or virtuoso baton-twirling but because they made telling contributions to the story.
So it is with this Pathétique, the first preserved fruit of the Berlin Philharmonic’s relationship with its new music director. It seems churlish to complain of short measure when so much more of the symphony can be heard than on most rival versions: three-part brass chords in the outer movements that ring true in each note, inner-part clarinet figures that also evoke bells, and frantic string figuration brought off with breathtaking unanimity.
The sound world springs no surprises: this is unapologetically German-sounding Tchaikovsky, albeit sung with a strong Russian accent. The density and grain of the string timbre is unmistakably Berlin, yet Petrenko holds the bass in check while directing our attention always towards the line – not necessarily the big tune but a line of argument in the air and on the move.
Thus he holds back only fractionally before sweeping into the first movement’s trombone-led climax. There is a beautifully sprung waltz, pitched perfectly between Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Myaskovsky, highlighting how much Tchaikovsky achieves with as little as a downward tonic scale. Terror, triumph and hysteria build steadily through the March. Even the aspiring third subject of the finale is at first moulded into life with a quiet dignity that could be confused with restraint, especially when compared with recordings celebrated for their unremitting intensity – by Furtwängler (live in Cairo with this orchestra – DG, 5/76), Mravinsky (DG, 11/61, 11/15) and Currentzis (Sony, 1/18).
Such a confusion would underrate Petrenko’s grasp of the symphony as a whole. He saves an ace up his sleeve for the muted horns that administer the coup de grâce at the finale’s climax, snarling here (at 6'40") with a dreadful significance which is only rivalled by Currentzis with the aid of studio-engineered sorcery. By contrast at every stage this is a live performance, edited from two consecutive nights at the Philharmonie though technically unblemished by audience contributions beyond their palpable attentiveness.
While Petrenko tends to let his baton do the talking in public, he makes modest and lucid remarks in the booklet (in typically high-spec, BPO own-label packaging) that also present a salutary contrast to Currentzis’s high-flown essay. Though there is, as he observes, ‘a recording of everything by everyone’, few enough of them demand such close attention as this Pathétique. I came away from it not wrung out – as I might have been in the hall – but ever more humbled in the face of a masterpiece.