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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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