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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74 [43:45]
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 [26:25]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
Rec. 22 April 1941, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Op. 74); 7 November 1938 (Op. 48) AAD
Remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110885 [70:10]


Three days before the first performance of Tchaikovskyís Sixth Symphony in October of 1893, the composer had written a letter to the music director of Amsterdamís Concertgebouw orchestra to accept an invitation to conduct his new work with the famous ensemble. Six weeks later, Tchaikovsky was dead, and it was left to a young rising star named Willem Mengelberg to conduct the Netherlands premiere of the symphony.

Recently, I and several of my colleagues reviewed another Naxos historical recording of this work, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and each of us agreed in principle that his was a noteworthy, majestic rendition. How interesting it was for me then, to receive, in as many months, a second historical recording performed by one of Furtwänglerís colleagues and contemporaries, and an equally legendary podium master. The differences between the two recordings, only three years apart in the making are striking, right down to the tone and sound of the respective orchestras.

Mengelberg was not particularly known for majestic choices of tempo, unless it was in the works of say, Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion he managed to drag out to Wagnerian proportions, even with considerable cuts. Coming in at nearly five full minutes faster than his German counterpart, Mengelberg eschews the grandiose and rather sentimental approach favored by the Berliner. Instead, we get a splendidly paced, dramatically taut performance with an attention to detail and orchestral color. So vivid are the shadings that Mengelberg achieves that it becomes a shame that this great tone painter did not have the advantage of modern recording technology.

There are some strange hints of intonation trouble in the brass at times, but one has to speculate that this is a defect in the original master discs and not in the playing. The intensity is simply too palpable and the sharpness of rhythmic gestures too dead-on to allow me to suspect that this great orchestra played out of tune.

With the exception of the sound quality, which Mark Obert-Thorn has restored to as near perfection as is humanly possible, this is a disc that should be amongst the absolute must-haves for anyone who loves romantic music. Everything that one could desire in the performance is there. Drama: as is evidenced in the burst of the brass after the opening movementís slow introduction, and the unrelenting energy that carries us to the end. Elegance: which comes in buckets in the lovely "waltz." Drive: as the third movement marches home, and resignation in the final quiet bars of the work. An ageless performance, and one that deserves continued presence in the catalogue.

As a splendid bonus, we are treated to a warm and energetic rendition of the gorgeous Serenade for Strings. Again, Mr. Obert-Thorn proves his genius by giving us every hint possible as to the glorious sound the Concertgebouw string section must have made. What a pity that such a great hand as Mengelbergís had to be preserved in such antiquated sound.

Buy this! It is a winner on all fronts.

Kevin Sutton

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