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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’ (1893).
Orchestre National de France/Riccardo Muti.
Live performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris on April 26th, 2003.
NAÏVE V4970 [49’50]

Riccardo Muti, a stranger to these shores now, has a special relationship with the Orchestre National de France. He conducts them every year, and the present issue adds further interest to his discography. Of course this is not his first foray into the wilds of the ‘Pathétique’ (there is a famous Philharmonia EMI recording), but the live aspect might be thought to add an extra angle.

In point of fact, instead of there being an added frisson of danger, this is a remarkably careful account almost as if rehearsal time had been limited. There are also some contradictory moments - the arrival of the ‘sighing’ theme at 4’52 is not as touching as the preceding perfect tailing off would seem to imply it should be, for example. This despite the fact that the woodwind/string dialogue at 3’18 onwards in the first movement speaks of careful rehearsal. In general, the orchestra seems unwilling to let itself go.

The very opening is indeed from the shadows, but it is not a patch on the most recent ‘Pathétique’ to come my way before this one, Furtwängler’s 1938 Berlin traversal . The same could be said of the entire performance.

The Allegro con grazia is suave, but not as elegant as many; the Allegro molto vivace third movement is simply careful for most of its duration. True, it does get grittier later, but never really takes off. If the very opening of the (in)famous finale is indeed a heartfelt cry, it fails to lead to a hyper-emotive statement. Under Muti, this flows along nicely, but Furtwängler it is not (and, some might argue, it isn’t Tchaikovsky either, not really). Even the perilously low horn stopping around the eight-minute mark and beyond is blunted here.

There is no doubting the excellence of the Orchestre National de France, and the engineers have done a fine job in capturing this event (including the odd bit of audience noise, but nothing too distracting).

Expectations ran high for this release, especially in the light of Muti’s Romeo and Juliet with the New Philharmonia that I reviewed early in 2002 . However, with the multiplicity of available recordings of this masterwork, it is hard to recommend this except perhaps to die-hard Muti fans. The fact there is no coupling just adds insult to injury.

Colin Clarke


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