Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" (CD review)

Philippe Jordan, Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Wiener Symphoniker WS 006.

According to a booklet note, the Vienna Symphony have been playing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony since 1903 and have performed it 283 times in their history. Now, the orchestra's latest Chief Conductor, Philippe Jordan, has recorded it on the Symphony's own label. And true to the tradition of orchestras recording under their own label, they have recorded it live.

The only item Maestro Jordan has included on the album is the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He wrote it in the last year of his life, and it would be the final work of his premiered before he died. Because the symphony is so famous, every listener probably has his or her own idea of how it should go, and Jordan's interpretation might not meet everyone's expectations. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. But Jordan sees more than that in it and exploits its more-subtle depths in a performance of heightened sensitivity. As I say, some listeners will appreciate it; others may find it boring. Certainly, it's a little different.

It's not that Jordan's tempos are slower than average, although in most cases they are slightly slower than those of several other recordings I had on hand for comparison. It's just that Jordan's handling of the subject matter seems gentler and more elegiac than most.

After a lengthy though well-judged introduction, Jordan moves into the main subject with a tender touch. This is not a rendition that will immediately thrill a listener or raise gooseflesh with its inspiration; it is a reading of initially mild temperament that uses contrast to create excitement. Jordan progresses through the score at a measured pace in order to build tension at key moments and then rise to a fevered pitch. The first movement has seldom appeared so agitated as here, the big Romantic central theme more melancholy than we usually hear it, followed by more sorrowful outbursts than usual. It is, as I say, a different approach.

The second-movement Allegro con grazia is as lyrical as any waltz could be, and on its own is quite lovely. The third-movement scherzo moves along at a healthy clip, never too fast nor too leisurely, even though it doesn't probably hit the "molto vivace" pace the composer intended until its last few seconds. Again, this appears to be another example of Jordan choosing to build up to grand, final climaxes for greater dramatic emphasis. So be it.

Philippe Jordan
And thus it goes through the Finale, which sounds more sorrowful under Jordan than under most other conductors. There always seems to be a foundation of mourning, grief, and pain in practically every note, something Tchaikovsky may or may not have meant. But that's why every piece of conducted music is an interpretation, this one a very personal and subjective one.

If Jordan's rendering of the symphony is somewhat controversial, there is one element of the album that isn't: the playing time. Because the conductor has chosen to include only the symphony on the disc and nothing else, the playing time for this classical disc is relatively brief: about forty-six minutes. For those folks who value quality over quantity, this should not make a difference. But still....

Producer Michael Haas and recording engineer Georg Burdicek made the album in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music (Musikverein Vien), December 2013. The sound obtained displays a wide dynamic range, varying from barely audible to room rocking. For a live recording the audience is ultra quiet, and, thankfully, there is no applause involved. Of course, recording fairly close up helps in this regard, although it also loses a little something in depth perception. It's a small concern, given that the music displays a decent amount of hall ambience and a reasonable degree of impact. While there isn't the greatest transparency about the sound, it is natural enough, and except for some slight forwardness in the upper midrange and some minor lack of fullness in the upper bass, it appears pretty well balanced.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa