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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op.74 Pathetique (1893)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux.
Recorded 26 January 1955 in Symphony Hall, Boston, U.S.A. DDD
BMG-RCA LIVING STEREO 82876 613972-2 [44’14"]

BMG have shot themselves in the foot with this release. Although it is an SACD and the sound quality is very good indeed, is 44’14" long enough to warrant the additional cost for a recording, good as it is which is now almost 50 years old? Moreover, it was, until relatively recently, available on a double album containing Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 by these same artists. In this format there is absolutely no difference in sound quality between the audio CD in the older coupling, and the SACD version played on a standard CD player.

Given the size of Monteux’s recorded legacy with RCA, there is plenty more material, which could have been added to this disc to make it more competitive. This is in the Living Stereo series which improves every time of issue. When they were originally released on vinyl in this country, the Decca pressings were not all that good. For a long time the quality of the original recordings remained hidden from us. It was only with the advent of CD that these early RCA issues began to show just how good they were in terms of sound quality. There were a few problem discs – i.e. the first issue on CD of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Gilels and Reiner which sounded shallow, shrill and congested. The latest issue on EMI ‘Great Conductor’ series shows just how good the original recording actually was.

Enough of the recording, how well does the performance of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece stand up against the competition? Monteux was famous for his recordings of the Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker ballets and this is the quality most to the fore in this recording. As always with the Boston Orchestra under Monteux, the playing is immaculate, neat and tidy, and somewhat balletic in nature. If you are looking for the Russian passion of a Mravinsky or in modern terms, perhaps Pletnev, you won’t find it here.

Tchaikovsky’s last symphony is full of passion and when played in this manner can move mountains. Here, the mountains would hardly move. However that does not negate this performance, and much pleasure may be had. If you are interested in hearing what the composer actually wrote, laid out clearly and concisely in good sound by an orchestra who obviously loved the man they were working with, this could be the disc for you.

Speeds are slightly on the fast side of average and in this day and age this is not a bad thing. One very important feature of recordings such as this is the superb acoustic of Symphony Hall in Boston. Once again, it was not until these recordings started to be re-mastered for CD that they began to be heard as the original engineers recorded them, and as the original master tapes had captured them.

The first movement has all the movement you would wish, although the passion is held very much in check. The second movement 5/4 waltz(?) movement is very balletic, and if it were not for the strange (for Tchaikovsky) time signature, the movement could have been lifted from one of the ballets. The March goes at a good pace and generates much of its excitement from the music rather than flashy conducting. The last movement is very moving, but not in a heart-on-sleeve manner – the passion comes from Tchaikovsky’s music itself.

To sum up this is a very fine issue, but measly on playing time and value for money – much better to look for the double album in the second-hand shops – 09026 61901-2.

John Phillips

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