Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet Overture. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80681.

The booklet note reminds us that Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, now a staple of the basic repertoire, did not succeed at its première. It confused audiences; they misunderstood it. It wasn't until the composer died, which came shortly thereafter, that people took another look at the work and saw its greatness, even saw in it a possible foreshadowing of the composer's death. Today, we might see the Sixth simply as innovative.

However, it's not hard to grasp why late nineteenth-century listeners might have been surprised by Tchaikovsky's final symphony. The long opening movement begins, unexpectedly, with a quiet Adagio and never reveals its main themes until well into the music. Then it gives us a waltz that isn't quite a waltz but does a wonderful job playing with waltz-like clues. That's followed by a Scherzo in the form of a march that erupts out of nowhere in a tone wholly unanticipated and builds to a frenzied climax. Finally, the last movement brings us back to Earth, prompting us to remember that the symphony's title (whether Tchaikovsky liked it or not) is "Pathetique," as the final deep notes fade off softly, gloomily, into silence.

What Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony do is provide us plenty of pathos. In Jarvi's hands, this is music of yearning, of heartache, of sorrow. And he never lets us forget it. But what I missed was the energy and passion that several other conductors also offer. Jarvi never seems to want to just let go, choosing, instead, to keep the work's more volatile emotions always in rein. By comparison, I had on hand Ashkenazy (Decca), Pletnev (Virgin), and Haitink (Philips), all of whom work up a bigger head of steam than Jarvi in the Symphony's biggest, loudest moments. The same can be said of the Symphony's companion piece, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

What none of the others have, though, is Telarc's patented bass drum or Telarc's broad dynamic range. Maybe the Telarc recording (made in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, in January, 2007) lacks a little something in overall transparency, but it more than makes up for it in impact. While Jarvi's rendering is not quite in the top echelon of Sixth Symphony interpretations, it deserves to reach a wide market of fans looking for decent sound and performance.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa