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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 "Pathétique" (1893)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
Live recording, 2–4 September 2004. DDD
PHILIPS SACD 475 6197 [43’59"]

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On first hearing, this performance struck me as something quite special; it was both deeply moving and radically different from many Pathétiques on record. Subsequent hearings did not confirm this initial impression, however. And, take a score to it and there are so many distortions and tempo fluctuations – notably in the Adagio lamentoso – that a rethink became inevitable. In part, I am pretty certain that this is what Valery Gergiev himself did at the concert from which this performance is taken. It does not sound quite the performance which he might have rehearsed with the Wiener Philharmoniker, although the orchestra’s playing is first rate, if not without some flaws.

That difference can be attributed to the Beslan Massacre, which occurred on the day this concert was given. It was an event which deeply moved Gergiev, not least because the conductor was born in Georgia. Hearing him give a live performance of this symphony in aid of the victims of Beslan in November last year at English National Opera (but with his Kirov Orchestra) the similarities with this Vienna performance are striking: the violence of the first movement’s allegro is palpable in both performances, the crushing climax teeters on the unbearable, and both the second and third movements are deliberately lacking in orchestral finesse, the waltz rhythms almost ripped out of the music’s heart. The Adagio itself is searing, yet broken and fragmented and ends in almost utter despair. With tempi constantly on the fast side (except for the Adagio) the element of haste and briskness in these performances seems to give an urgency to the music it does not need. Tchaikovsky was such a skilful writer of tempo markings that the music lives from within. Gergiev simply ignores almost everything Tchaikovsky wrote.

All of this differs from his Kirov Tchaikovsky Sixth (also on Philips) and a live Vienna performance, both of which sound to me more honest than this new disc. Gergiev can be a highly individualistic orchestral conductor, bringing out details which no other conductor sees. But the downside of this is that his performances tend towards the perverse. I have never, for example, warmed to his Rite of Spring, either on record or the numerous times I have heard him do it with various orchestras live in concert.

Save for the final minutes of this performance – which show exactly what calibre of orchestra he has in the Wiener Philharmoniker – the Adagio is a spiritual desert. Tchaikovsky marks the opening as crotchet=54, the same as he does for the opening movement of the symphony. Gergiev is almost spot-on in the first movement, but in the Adagio he is so far ahead of Tchaikovsky’s tempo that when the Andante comes in at crotchet=69 and then the Adagio returns at crotchet=60, the music simply loses its sense of purpose. The climax itself is highly individual – and highly mannered – taken at breakneck speed - but, come the closing moments of the symphony (8’29 onwards) and we are in a different world altogether. The Vienna strings dig deeply for Gergiev, in the most searching of ways, the ’cellos and double basses moving from the sf marking to a diminuendo with almost astonishing refinement. Quite how the strings attain the pppp that Tchaikovsky requires is both magical and breathtaking. Rarely, has this symphony ended on a literal heartbeat as it does here and the effect is deeply spiritual.

On first hearing I most people would, I am sure, find this a deeply affecting performance of one of the great Romantic symphonies, but I suspect the events that created it would make it simply that: a one off listening experience. Too interpretatively individual to be a recommendation, there are more solid performances of this great work to return to in recordings by Asahina (my top recommendation), Celibidache, Furtwängler (Berlin and Cairo) and Sinopoli. All offer performances as uniquely compelling as Gergiev’s, but somehow each of those performances offers just that bit more than a one-off event.

Marc Bridle

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