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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique" [43í45"]
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48* [26í25"]
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Willem Mengelberg
Rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 22 April 1941; *7 November 1938 ADD
NAXOS 8.110885 [70í10"]


I find it endlessly fascinating that people can have completely different reactions to works of art and that these different reactions can be completely valid. In other words, no one can say that one personís view is right and anotherís wrong. In the case of the performing arts this is equally true of performances. I was reminded of this by reading the very enthusiastic review of this very disc by my colleague, Kevin Sutton. By the time Kevinís review appeared I was already well advanced in my listening but his review sent me scurrying back to the CD player to check my own responses to the disc yet again. In the end I have to conclude that he and I have reached very different conclusions about this recorded performance of the "Pathétique" but, of course, neither of us is "right" or "wrong" we have simply been affected in different ways by a performance that is strikingly individual.

In many ways I endorse Kevinís view of this CD wholeheartedly. In the first place the sound is truly remarkable, a testament not only to the restorative skills of Mark Obert-Thorn but also to the amazing results that the Telefunken engineers often achieved in this period. As Kevin says, there are some occasional issues of brass intonation but, like him, Iím inclined to think that this is a (rare) defect in the recorded sound. The only other problem with the sound is that the recording canít quite cope with some of the biggest climaxes in the symphony. On the positive side, however, the engineers have given a real concert hall ambience to the sound (albeit the sound of an empty hall) and we get a vivid image of the orchestra. Sample, for example, the little fanfares on the horns at 2í42" into the first movement of the symphony; thereís a fine degree of perspective. The strings are recorded in both works with great richness and although the wind choir is a trifle recessed in the symphony, though not damagingly so, a wealth of detail is reported in both works.

We tend to think that standards of orchestral playing are higher these days than ever before but this disc shows us what a fabulous instrument Mengelbergís Concertgebouw orchestra was. As Ian Julier points out in his very interesting notes, the recording of the symphony was set down not long before the Nazis enforced a number of personnel changes in the orchestra. So this is one of the last recorded examples of the orchestra that the Dutch master had built up in more than 45 years at its helm. The wind playing is tremendous (I love the woody sound of the solo clarinet in particular) and the brass are first rate too. Though the amount of portamento employed may not be to all tastes nowadays thereís a richness, depth and sheen to the strings that is well-nigh irresistible. More than sixty years after these performances were set down we are privileged to hear some absolutely top-drawer playing on this disc.

Kevin describes the performance of the Serenade for Strings as "warm and energetic", a verdict that strikes me as spot-on. I loved the sweetness of the upper strings near the start of the first movement (track 5, 0í51"). Thereís some wonderfully pliant and responsive playing in the third movement, the touching Elégie, and the finale benefits greatly from a tempo that is flowing and energetic but which does not rush the music off its feet. In all, this is a splendid performance.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the reading of the symphony but, try as I may, Iíve found that I canít share Kevinís positive view of it. We both reviewed the near-contemporaneous recording of the same work by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the two readings could scarcely be more different. To my ears however, itís Mengelberg, rather than Furtwängler who produces a "sentimental" performance.

I noted numerous small tempo modifications in Furtwänglerís traversal of the first movement. There are many such changes in Mengelbergís reading but whereas I found that Furtwänglerís variations of tempo seem natural those by Mengelberg seem to me to draw attention to themselves and to interrupt the musicís flow. At times it seems that the pulse is being modified every few bars. Not only does this distract the listener (or at any rate this listener) but I think it also disturbs the structure. I must also say that I dislike the little agogic distortion every time the first three descending notes of the andante "big tune" are played (the first example of this is 12 bars after letter D in the score Ė track 1, 4í37") . After a while I found this became an annoying mannerism.

The 5/4 waltz goes better for a while but trouble starts when the second subject is reached at letter D. This is marked "con dolcezza e flessibile." I thought Furtwängler was lugubrious in this passage but Mengelberg outdoes even him. I donít think Iíve ever heard this episode sound so doom-laden. A basically slow tempo is pulled about unacceptably and the pronounced use of portamento by the strings just adds to the lachrymose atmosphere. The worst is saved till last. Thereís a pronounced slowing down nineteen bars from the end (track 2, 7í04") and thereafter the music seems to get slower and slower. Iím afraid I found this grotesque.

The music of the third movement is pretty straightforward and so it rather defies anyone, even Mengelberg at his most interventionist, to distort it. In fact this movement is conspicuously successful. The orchestra plays with sparkling virtuosity and the conductor drives the music splendidly but not excessively.

In the finale Mengelberg largely respects the score in terms of the tempi he adopts. Once again thereís considerable use of portamento and this emphasises the doleful aspect of the music. I noted "gaunt sadness" in Furtwänglerís interpretation. Mengelberg is much more overt in his application of emotion, not least in the coda (track 4, from 8í02"). Those who find Furtwängler just too cool in this movement may well respond more favourably to Mengelbergís more heart-on-sleeve approach.

This is a highly subjective interpretation. It will either thrill you (as it clearly thrilled my colleague) or it may irritate you, as was the case with me. Perhaps Iíve been spoiled by coming to this recording off the back of hearing Mariss Jansonsí stunning account of this work at the Promenade concerts a couple of weeks ago. I thought that Jansons gave a masterclass in how to present a "warhorse" work freshly but without recourse to any unwarranted point-making. His reading thrilled me because he trusted Tchaikovsky and let him speak for himself, something that, sadly, Mengelberg seems not to have wanted to do.

As Kevin Sutton suggests this Mengelberg performance is one which demands to be heard. Happily, at the Naxos price one can afford to experiment and hear a great and provocative interpreter at work, even if one does not agree with the artistic conclusions that he reaches. Certainly Mengelberg is never dull. However, I fear that in this performance we hear a bit too much Mengelberg and not quite enough Tchaikovsky. I echo Kevinís advice that you should buy this disc - and then you can judge for yourself.

John Quinn

 


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