The last time I listened to Maestro David Bernard and his merry band of semiprofessional musicians, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, they were engaged in the unlikely task of playing the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. They did a very good with it, too, if a little underpowered in the orchestral department, and I might say the same for this latest venture, their recording of the Tchaikovsky Sixth.
Anyway, you probably know about the Park Avenue ensemble. It includes mainly players who do other things for a living (like hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, and so on). They're not exactly amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Fortunately, their playing dispels any lingering skepticism about the quality of their work; everyone involved with the orchestra deserves praise. Nor is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony a particularly small group. It just isn't the size of a full symphony orchestra, and no matter how well they play (and they play well, indeed), you won't mistake them for the Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic.
So, you probably also know that 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 composition before he died. The ensuing century brought it growing fame, and today one 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 play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. But Maestro Bernard has a different agenda in mind. The folks at Recursive Classics call it a "fresh look," and here's how Maestro Bernard describes it:
"The Pathetique's mythology can be a strong influence to see each and every phrase as an opportunity to express mournful longing. I don't find this especially helpful to the work, as repetitive rubato and excessively slow tempi dilute its intense narrative. And when considering the work as a whole, the 'suicide note' theory that is used as the basis for this thinking is somewhat questionable. The Pathetique's immense scale and relentless passion demands a life force in the composer that simply could not exist inside a person resigned to take his own life."
The work begins with a fairly lengthy introduction, building in agitated fashion before culminating in the music's famous central theme. Maestro Bernard tells us the movement's narrative shape is "unmistakably linked to his 'Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.'" So Bernard's reading is one more of beauty and elegance than purely of tragedy, pathos, or suffering. Fair enough, although I didn't hear the grand sweep this music usually evokes. It's more subdued than that, perhaps odd given that I am more used to Bernard being so very energetic. Of course, he becomes more animated in the middle theme, although even here his relatively smaller forces don't make as much of an impact as most bigger ensembles do.
The second movement is another of the composer's famous waltzes, which Bernard says should glide "the listener from beginning to end." Certainly, the conductor accomplishes this with ease, the music flowing sweetly and gently along, if at a quicker pace than we sometimes hear.
The third movement is a zippy scherzo. And under Bernard's leadership, zip it does. Bernard says it "requires an unceasing energy that drives relentlessly to an ending that is as inevitable as it is exciting." Well, yeah. Still, I don't see that Bernard accomplishes this end any better than many other conductors. So we'll give him kudos for being at least as good as everyone else, and the last few minutes of the movement are as thrilling as they come.
The symphony ends in a mournful Finale. However, says Bernard again, this is no "suicide note." It's Tchaikovsky coming to terms with his own mortality. I'm not sure what that means, but this movement is certainly the high point of Maestro Bernard's realization of things. Here, the music appears neither tragic nor sorrowful, just longing, wistful, meditative. Although some listeners may miss more of the composer's power and emotion, the conductor makes up for it in feelings of contemplation and reflection.
The orchestras responds to Maestro Bernard's guidance admirably, and one would never know these players weren't all professional, full-time musicians. The ensemble's performance is commendably precise, the contrasts in softer and louder passages especially telling in their nuanced delivery. Still, is there any pressing need for a new Sixth Symphony in one's library? Personal taste, of course, and it is fun hearing the music done up in such clear, clean sound and in such a clean, clear interpretation. As always, try to listen before buying.
Audio engineers Joseph Patrych and Antonio Oliart recorded the symphony at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City, in May 2017. As we might expect from an ensemble a bit smaller than a full symphony orchestra, the sound is fairly transparent, with good depth of field and a realistic stereo spread. Dynamic impact is strong, frequency response wide, and instrument separation lifelike. I liked the sound a lot.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: