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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathètique (1893) [46:40]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Verklärte Nacht (1899) [28:48]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. Munich Philharmonie in Gasteig, 23-25 June 2004.
SONY SK 93537 [75:26]

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I lived in Pittsburgh during most of Mariss Jansons’ tenure as chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Native Pittsburghers are fierce in their loyalties, not only to their sports teams and coaches but analogously to other cultural institutions — such as the Symphony and its conductor. My own feelings toward Jansons were more ambivalent. I appreciated his programming choices: a lot of twentieth-century music, including challenging and contemporary works. His conducting, however, often left me cold: heavy accents on the exciting parts to rouse the crowd, at the expense of a coherent and compelling musical argument. Sometimes, though, he could transcend himself: by far the most intense concert experience of my sheltered musical life was his performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, shortly before his departure to Europe. So I was curious to sample his work with one of his new orchestras, the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Is he, then, a worthy successor to the post once held by Rafael Kubelik?

To judge by this recording: No. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathètique shows that he has a better orchestra than he did (Chandos CHAN 8446) in Oslo - which is not to say that the Norwegians are slouches. There are, to me, two reference recordings for Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies. The first are the 1960 London tour performances by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic (DG 419 745-2). The searing intensity, the unwavering commitment of these readings demonstrate the defiant resolution of these musicians, unvanquished by Stalinist oppressions. The other interpretive extreme is Bernstein’s nearly concurrent (1964) recording with the New York Philharmonic (Sony SMK 47635). Not surprisingly for this conductor, this is Tchaikovsky seen through the lens of Mahler, and convincingly so. The Pathètique becomes a narrative of introspection and psychological struggle. Nobody can tell the resignation of the fourth movement Adagio lamentoso like Bernstein can. Jansons seems to try to steer between these two extremes. Perhaps he tries to get the best of both interpretive approaches. If so, he fails, and achieves something neither fish nor fowl.

Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg inhabit very distinct and, to my mind and ear, very different, sound-worlds. To couple these two works, in concert or recording, requires a convincing case to be made, and in this case no attempt here is made to do this. Jansons plays Schoenberg as he plays Tchaikovsky, shifting gears insufficiently to achieve the late-Romantic sound-scape that Schoenberg paints. Again, he takes an inconclusive middle road, achieving some, but not all, of the clarity of sound and musical argument found by Boulez (Sony SMK 48465), while conveying some, but not enough, of the hyper-romantic authenticity found by Chailly (London 473 728-2).

The liner notes in the copy I received were solely auf Deutsch. The applause after each of the works could have, and should have, been edited out.

Given that Jansons has been garnering leadership of world-class orchestras, it is frustrating that he does not evince more consistent musical inspiration.       

Brian Burtt


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