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

Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna. Sony 88985404352.

You'll forgive me if I keep thinking of the Greek-born conductor, musician, and actor Teodor Currentzis as a new and upcoming young conductor. He was, in fact, in his mid forties (b. 1972) at the time of this writing, he's won numerous awards, conducted even more concerts, and made a dozen recordings. In 2004 he formed the MusicAeterna Orchestra (and later the MusicAeterna Chorus). Although audiences probably best know him for his opera productions, he's no slouch at purely orchestral music, either, where critics have found his direction everywhere from electrifying to terrifying. At the very least, you can say he's enthusiastic, as this recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony demonstrates.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" in the last year of his life, and it was his final work before he died. The ensuing century brought it growing fame, and today person can hardly doubt its value as one of the late-Romantic period's most-popular works. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors, like Currentzis, play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. It's just that Maestro Currentzis perhaps takes the "passionate" direction a step further than most.

The work begins with a fairly lengthy introduction, building in agitated fashion before culminating in the music's famous central theme. Currentzis takes this opening with more than adequate agitation; indeed, with more agitation than one normally hears. Then, he goes into the main theme with a delicacy one doesn't often hear, as well. Although the result is a timing for the first movement that differs little from the half dozen comparison recordings I had on hand, it's made up of more variable rubato, more stops and starts, more lengthened and shortened notes and phrases, and definitely more volatile dynamics than I have ever heard before in a performance of this music. There were several moments in the proceedings when the orchestra positively jolted me upright. One can question whether this is purely showmanship on Currentzis's part or whether it suits the mercurial nature of Tchaikovsky's music. There is no doubt it will keep you awake.

Teodor Currentzis
The second-movement is another of the composer's famous waltzes, followed by a zippy third-movement scherzo, and ending in a mournful Finale. Currentzis takes the waltz in headlong fashion, perhaps faster than the usual waltz tempo; yet, like the rest of the performance, it seems perfectly attuned to the idiosyncratic nature of the rest of the reading. The scherzo is as peppy and lively as any you'll hear, but by this point we expect that of Currentzis. The Finale is probably the least controversial part of the recording, with Currentzis calming down and offering a fine, passionately soulful conclusion to the music.

In all, I dunno. If you like your Tchaikovsky expressive and emotional to the nth degree, you'll get that from Currentzis. It's not subtle, not terribly nuanced, not delicate or polished. It's Tchaikovsky unrefined, undiluted. Like the sound I'll mention next, listeners are apt to find the performance immensely satisfying or overwhelmingly unwelcome.

The disc's jewel box comes enclosed in a glossy paper slipcase and a booklet essay by Maestro Currentzis himself. I'm afraid I couldn't get through much of the conductor's prose, which tends to be as flashy as his music making.

Damien Quintard produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album at Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, Berlin in February 2015. To put this kindly, think of your seating position as being in the front one or two rows of an auditorium. The orchestra is spread out very wide in front of you, and the instruments are practically in your lap. The effect is not without its commensurate thrills, but it may take a moment to get used to. This is the kind of close miking one usually associates with live recordings; however, nowhere on the packaging does it indicate this is a live recording. So, it's apparently just a close-up studio performance. It certainly gives clarity, life, and dynamism to the sound, although there isn't a lot of orchestral depth to give us a feeling of reality; nor is there much hall resonance; and there are some odd, audible effects in the final movement. The dynamic range and sonic impact may for some listeners compensate for the recording's eccentricities, though, and provide more excitement than they've ever heard before in this symphony. Like Currentzis's interpretation of the music itself, the sound may either delight or infuriate you.


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

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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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