TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 6 (Tilson Thomas)

Author: 
Andrew Farach-Colton

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 6 (Tilson Thomas)

  • Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique'

Here’s a middle-of-the-road interpretation of a work that’s anything but. Indeed, the Pathétique is so emotionally charged and structurally daring that it’s perhaps the most transgressive symphony in the standard repertory. Tchaikovsky makes it patently clear, through abundant performance directives and expressive markings, that this is music of extremes and defied expectations. That’s not what we get on this live recording from the San Francisco Symphony. Here, the stark contrasts are attenuated and the irregularities ironed out, resulting in a Pathétique that’s far too comfortable.

The strings of the SFS play the first movement’s famous lyrical tune quite beautifully, for example, but why does Tilson Thomas make so little of the incalzando and ritenuto markings? Surely Tchaikovsky wants a tidal-strength ebb and flow in this passage, not becalmed seas. And then why anticipate the brief rallentando in the Moderato assai (at 8'24") – which, by the way, should flow more easily than the preceding Andante, but doesn’t – by a good seven bars, so we’re sinking in quicksand rather than being carried out with the current?

Tilson Thomas narrows the music’s extraordinary dynamic range, too. The cataclysm at 14'54" is a round, full, fortissimo here, not the bone-crushing fortissississimo Tchaikovsky demands. And just as the devotional D major theme at 3'02" in the finale is closer to a crooning forte than an intimate pianissimo, there are also no painful sforzando (sffz) spasms when this theme returns, now in B minor, near the end (at 9'33").

As for the middle movements: the lopsided waltz is brightly lit and easy-going, with no hint of ungainliness, despite its odd 5/4 time signature, while the march is played very deliberately, with clean articulation emphasised over verve and effervescence. There’s also precious little true piano playing in the latter, so the dramatic dynamic shifts – like a cinematographer zooming in and out – are flattened.

I have a few interpretative quibbles with Currentzis’s blistering account of the Pathétique but his orchestra play as if every note were a matter of life or death. And then there’s Bychkov, who digs deeply while remaining scrupulously faithful to the score. Tilson Thomas plays it relatively safe, and this music demands so much more than that.

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