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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893):
Symphony No. 6 in B minor (Pathétique), Op. 74 (1893) [43í12"]
Francesca da Rimini, Fantasy for Orchestra, Op. 32 (1876)* [24í48"]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Rec. Gothenburg Concert Hall on 23 & 24 Jan 2004 and *1 Sept 2003
BIS Ė SACD Ė 1348 [69í02"]

The first thing to make clear is that I listened to this disc in conventional CD format. Even so the sound is very impressive indeed. As usual with BIS the music is presented in very natural sound but even by their high standards this recording is extremely clear and detailed and has a very wide dynamic range. Every strand of the orchestration is clear, for which Iím sure credit must be shared between the conductor and the engineers. Indeed, a great amount of detail that one doesnít usually hear is clarified, though without any suspicion of highlighting.

The playing offered by the Gothenburg players is extremely fine and every department acquits itself very well. The attention to dynamics is particularly impressive.

The Pathétique is a piece in which the conductor has to tread a fine line between bringing out the strong emotion in the music and overdoing the emotional content. I donít know if Neeme Järvi was particularly conscious of this but for some reason he seems to me to underplay the visceral emotion of the outer movements, almost to the point of coolness. Unfortunately, itís these outer movements that carry the main weight of the symphonic drama. In his favour, there are no eccentricities of tempo and I can imagine that some listeners may prefer his more measured approach. However, to my mind, such moments as the start of the Allegro vivo in the first movement (Track 1, 8í53") should be so electrifying as to make one jump. That simply doesnít happen here.

The second movement is done with grace and a pleasing lilt and the third movement, the march, is splendidly incisive. The first few minutes of the finale are quite dignified, which I rather like. However, the tempo is just a touch too flowing to allow the music to make the impact that it should. Thereís not much of the "lamentoso" about this movement. For all that the sound is excellent, thereís one miscalculation, I think. The doom-laden gong stroke near the end is virtually inaudible (I had to listen three times, the third time through headphones, before I heard it.)

In summary, this is a thoughtful, well prepared performance but it strikes me as being too objective. It certainly didnít stir me in the way that, say, Guido Cantelliís 1952 Philharmonia reading does (now on Testament and rightly praised by Marc Bridle in January.) Nor does Järvi match the intensity of Ferenc Fricsayís spacious 1959 account included in the recent DG Masters box devoted to the Hungarian maestro. And then, of course, thereís Mravinsky but his legendary 1960 reading for DG with his Leningrad Philharmonic in full cry really is hors concours. Listening to any of these rivals shows only too clearly what is lacking from Järviís reading.

Francesca da Rimini is not perhaps as fine or as taut a piece as either Romeo and Juliet or the still-underrated Hamlet. However, I love the work and in the right hands it can be overwhelmingly exciting. Itís a tremendous test for the orchestra (a test which the Gothenburgers pass with flying colours). Once again, theyíre accorded a superb recording. However, as with the symphony, Järviís interpretation failed to thrill me.

The potent introduction is well done but when the main allegro is reached (track 5, 3í50") the basic tempo is just a tad too careful with the result that the music hangs fire fatally. At the speed Järvi sets the detail is commendably clear but this is achieved at the price of a lack of impetus. You donít feel that the stormy winds of Hell are swirling round the star-crossed lovers. Turn to either Leopold Stokowskiís 1958 reading with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York (presumably the New York Philharmonic in disguise) or Sir John Barbirolliís superb 1969 version with the New Philharmonia (now on Dutton) and youíre in a different league.

Both Barbirolli and Stokowski etch in the drama far more vividly and with much more passion than is evident with this newcomer. I should say that the long, ardent central section is fine Ė and itís ushered in by a superb clarinet solo Ė but the allegro stretches that open and close the piece lack drive and tension. Thereís a palpable sense of adrenalin flowing with both Barbirolli and Stokowski but, sadly, thatís missing in Järviís account. The incandescent Stokowski performance (one of his finest recordings, surely) sweeps the board and hurtles to a close of nightmare-ish intensity. Barbirolli isnít far behind and he draws out the final, gong-drenched chords most excitingly. Heís also predictably ardent in the central love music where the NPO plays its collective heart out for him. Besides these two distinguished rivals I fear Järvi doesnít really compete.

Iím sorry to be so negative about this disc from a conductor whose work I much admire. Neeme Järvi has made many fine recordings but this, I fear, isnít one of them. If I were awarding marks out of ten Iíd give 10 to the recorded sound and 9 to the playing but could only rate the interpretations at about 5 out of 10. In a fiercely competitive field I fear I canít give this a strong endorsement.

John Quinn

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