47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
, 14 May 2006
This review is from: Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos.4, 5 & 6 "Pathetique" (DG The Originals) (Audio CD)
Shaw once said loftily that Tchaikovsky has a thoroughly Byronic ability to be intensely tragic about nothing much. Without going quite so far, I'd certainly agree that a certain sepulchral tone and a propensity to whip up frantic emotion come to him easily. I don't think I ever heard the start of the 5th symphony expressed with quite such cavernous gloom as it is on this set nor the frenzy more frenzied, and that is exactly how I like it all done.
This set dates from 1960, the height of the cold war, and at that time Mravinsky had been very little heard in what we used to call 'the west'. It was a period when western critics were inclined to favour a smoothed-over play-safe school of interpretation of the musical classics. This had something to be said for it as a reaction against the libertarian excesses of some previous schools, but it descended into a facile mediocrity based to all intents and purposes on checklists and box-ticking, reaching its nadir in the 70's and 80's when the main aesthetic preoccupation in many commentaries was the issue of how many repeats had been observed. Myself, I am thoroughly in favour of professionalism from professional musicians, but on the other hand I don't find checklists a very illuminating guide through the gardens of the muses. It also seemed to me that our ideas of how to play Tchaikovsky were probably too influenced by our ideas of the Viennese classics, and the advent of Mravinsky in London came none to soon.
It was enlightening to me to compare Mravinsky's account of the 4th symphony with a fine modern version from Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. On the checklist approach Abbado does very well indeed. I don't impugn the professionalism of the Leningrad orchestra in any way when I suggest that they are not quite the equal technically of the Vienna players, something I noticed particularly in the pizzicato effects in the third movement. However when it came to the question which interpretation had the greater individuality and sense for the composer's idiom, the answer was not long in coming. Put simply, Mravinsky's performance is an event, and Abbado's, by comparison, is not. This is not a matter of taking undue liberties with the tempo. The 4th symphony does not call for that, and Mravinsky deploys only a very normal ebb and flow. The tone-quality has more to do with it, and I find myself bewitched by the penetrating sound of the Leningrad woodwind and brass, but most of all it's a matter of the expression. A great interpretation of Tchaikovsky must put across a sense of neurosis without losing control. Quite apart from the tragedy, gloom and semi-hysteria there must be a tense and nervy feel to the gaiety, and the lyric sections should seem like balm on wounds, and these are the senses I get uniquely from Mravinsky.
When it comes to the 5th , the liner-note has some fairly superficial and noncommittal remarks about freedom of tempo and 'authenticity'. The issue here seems to me to be that Tchaikovsky is trying to achieve something more distinct than before from the Viennese style. The tightly integrated structure of a first movement at which Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were so adept was not his natural style, and he lacked their mastery in varying the lengths of musical phrases. His first movement is more a succession of short episodes, and without labouring the question of authenticity I'd say that the sense of the music demands a certain amount of flexilibity, although this composer does not micro-specify the details in the way Mahler does. As a comparison from a different standpoint I played my version from Celibadache. By contrast Mravinsky sounds the soul of 'correctness', notably in the first movement where Celibadache starts the allegro at a funereal pace, getting much faster a little later. I don't recommend it as any model, but it has the feel of real Tchaikovsky to me, and I prefer it to any 10 spick-and-span western versions. So does Mravinsky, and I appreciate the comment in the liner that he shows some of the virtues of Toscanini and of Fuertwaengler combined.
With the 6th Tchaikovsky has finally got his formula right. Instead of a seamless Viennese first movement he writes great separate blocks of music, and Mravinsky plays the effect up with long pauses between them. In the finale he abandons 'cyclic form', which doesn't amount to a form but is just a matter of bringing back themes from earlier movements in the finale. Brahms's 3rd shows how the thing can be done, but late romantic symphonists in general are not such musical aristocrats as Brahms. The device is something I learned to dread. Dvorak uses it, but not in his best works, it lets down even so great a composition as Franck's symphony, and in Tchaikovsky's 5th the matter is carried to such excess that it takes Mravinsky or Celibadache to make it tolerable to me. The 6th leaves all that behind, and I never heard a performance to equal this. I recall some comment many years ago to the effect that this 1960 stereo version is not the equal of his 1956 epoch-maker in mono, but I own both and I find little to choose.
This set, for me, is what Tchaikovsky is all about. The orchestral discipline is total, the sound is thrilling (compare Mravinsky at the start of any of these symphonies with anyone you like), this that and the next detail is better than in any other version, but it's the overall sense of communication of the personality of Russia's greatest composer that grips me. The question that the liner poses in its last paragraph is a false antithesis. The 6th shows Tchaikovsky at the height of his powers and is also a suicide note. Blackmail can never have had so eloquent an outcome.
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